Although they lag behind their European counterparts, American cities are becoming more and more bike-friendly. A growing number are launching bike sharing schemes—New York and Chicago being the latest—and bike lanes continue to grow in mileage nationwide.
While bike lanes are nice (when they’re not blocked by double-parked cars, that is), nothing quite puts cycling on par with driving like a dedicated bike path. A great path can make city cycling a truly different experience: you can skip traffic, commune with nature and see the city from a new angle. In some cases, paths can even get you out of town as fast as you can pedal.
Some bike paths, naturally, stand out for truly elevating the quality of life in their cities. The 19 we found—some of which we’ve ridden ourselves—ought to be celebrated and emulated, and even built upon and improved.
To determine which ones meet this standard, though, we first had to ask what makes a great bike path.
For starters, many on our list are important commuting arteries that give cyclists direct access to business districts while avoiding city traffic and making few street crossings. A few, like Boston’s Minuteman Bikeway or Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail, were even designed, in part, to bring commuters in from the suburbs where they’d otherwise be out of reach of mass transit.
Almost all are paved, and those that aren’t are well surfaced with finely crushed rock and graded for ease of riding.
Most importantly, though, a great bike path is separate from traffic for all or most of its length. Our selections, for the most part, are rail trails, which are former railway lines that have been paved over and converted for non-motorized use. With one exception that was too good to leave out—San Francisco’s Embarcadero, in case you’re wondering—these paths are only occasionally broken by segments where cyclists have to share the road with cars. (All but one are multi-use, though, meaning they’re open to pedestrians, inline skaters, and, in some cases, horses.)
They also happen to be exceptionally beautiful. All but three of these bike paths run alongside a body of water, and almost all are bounded by parkland, giving cyclists a decidedly non-urban respite from the stress of city riding.
We also looked at other factors: Does the path offer exceptional views of, and access to, the city? Is it good for recreational riders and tourists? Does the city take pride in it?
While there’s no objective way to say one bike path is the best, we will say these are all strong contenders and there are doubtless many more we missed. Let us know in the comments.