Great “unknown” bike cities

If like me, you are interested in cycling as a form of everyday transport then you have probably heard of at least Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen and Portland.

I have yet to visit Portland but have visited A,B & C as I described in my previous post – A Car Free year in Adelaide.

Only a few weeks ago I stumbled across (on Pinterest) the Italian city of Ferrara, which has a very high cycling usage and a great bike culture. (see my Pinterest Board – Bikes and Bike People)

That got me interested enough to do a bit of research.
Given a lack of comparative data and a universally agreed measurement basis there is no perfect list but here are a few to get you going.

Copenhagenize : Index 2011 The Top 20 Bicycle-Friendly Cities
The World’s Most Bicycle Friendly Cities – Copenhagenize July 2009 a list of 44.

In doing my research I chose to pair cities as it may provide an opportunity for a cycling holiday, (which I plan to do more of in future) .

Anyway here are a few that I hadn’t heard much about but caught my fancy for different reasons. Some for the fashion, food and fun (e.g. Italy) and some to immerse myself in high quality cycling infrastructure  – e.g. Norway and The Netherlands. Japan interests me for a number of reasons and China  – well everyone is watching China for clues as to how they scale their social solutions.

Parma, Modena, Bologna, Ferrara & Ravenna , Emilia Romagna region, Italy.

I love Italy and even though I briefly visited Bologna (about 100km North of Florence) 20 years ago enroute to Urbino wasn’t thinking about cycling back then.
Here’s the Pinterest photo and caption that got my attention.”Despite paved-stone streets dating to the fifteenth century, Ferrara has more bicycles than people. In Europe, only Copenhagen has more.”

Wow I thought, that’s interesting – tell me more!

Here’s the story linked to that particular photo if you are interested  – The Filthy, Fecund Secret of Emilia-Romagna. It’s not a bicycle story – it’s a food story – but reading that story only inspired me to put it on my list of bike holiday destinations.

And as the author, Patrick Symmes  says “ If there is one place in Europe you can tour without a car, it is Emilia-Romagna. Secondary cities, like Ferrara, were served by regional trains, slower and covered with graffiti, but nonetheless reliable and cheap, and filled with the real life of Italy: students, immigrants, even dogs, who can ride if they have their own ticket. “

Travelling between and around these towns by bike sounds to me like a good way to spend a couple of weeks.


For a bit more information specifically about Ferrara and cycling I read Ferrara’s Vintage Bicycle Fleet which described a wonderland of vintage bikes still in regular use and a city of 135,000 people where older people feature in cycling’s 30% modal share.

“I’ve never seen so many bicycle users over ‘a certain age’ in one place anywhere in the world.”
For some more great photos see Ferrara’s Fantastic Female Cyclists and The Dapper Gents of Ferrara

“Easily 80% of the bicycles ridden in the city are vintage. The bike racks outside the train station alone must be the greatest gathering of vintage bikes in one spot on the planet. Each and every day of the year. Seriously, if you’re into vintage bicycles this is where you go to drool.”

On this post A Total Fiasco: Bicycling Infrastructure in Italy , David Vega-Barachowitz describes the elderly bicycling populations of Ravenna and Ferrara as :

“ a vestige of time past. Like some crumbling basilica sinking into the mud, They hark back to a time in Italy’s grand history before automobile ownership and vespas, when bicycling was the fastest and most convenient way to get around the small towns and Italian countryside (at least the flatter regions). Though the gates of Ravenna have today flung open to a torrent of traffic, the old ladies headed to the market still take their bikes. (When I say old, I mean really, really old ladies.)”

Sounds good to me . And if you are interested in some nearby touring then you can get some inspiration here : Cycling around Ferrara


From Parma, Italy: a cultural city guide we learn that Parma (population 187,000 ) is a city of Renaissance splendours where even the ham is presented as a work of art. Cool.


Modena, a city of 185,000 sandwiched between Parma and Bologna is famous for it’s balsamic vinegar, not it’s cycling.

But as  cycling photographer Sue Darlow  notes in her well illustrated story Modena Mode :
“the place was alive with cyclists”
“a ‘bike culture’ is not necessarily something that is self-consciously created by people who love and promote cycling, who know all about gear ratios, aerodynamics and frame angles and who dress the part. It can exist in a place where most cyclists don’t care a jot about their bikes, couldn’t tell you whether their bike had hub or rim brakes, couldn’t mend a puncture if their life depended on it, and wouldn’t be seen dead wearing any kind of cycle clothing, let alone a helmet. They wouldn’t even class themselves as a cyclist, probably, yet these people may use a cycle every day of the week to get somewhere within the city. “


Bologna, the city proper had a population of 380,000 (while 1 million live in the greater Bologna area)
Lonely Planet says :
“the venerable Università di Bologna –founded in 1088 – remains the oldest university in Europe. Celebrated for combining radical politics with a dash of Italian glamour, Bologna itself is a trifecta of architectural, historical, and culinary delights.”


With a population of about 160,000 Ravenna is now down-to-earth but is still a refined and polished place.

Bozen-Bolzano , Italy

A comment on Copenhagenize lead me to Kim Harding’s Alpine Cycle Chic part 2: Bozen/Bolzano . Have a look at the chic photos.

Bozen- Bolzano is a University town of about 100,000 in the Italian Alps, far north Italy.

As Kim says “According to the conventional wisdom (of English speaking cycle campaign groups), Bozen/Bolzano shouldn’t have a bicycling culture because it isn’t flat.”

Wikipedia advises “There is a 50-kilometer network of cycle paths and about 30% of journeys in Bolzano are made by bicycle”.

Sandnes & Trondheim, Norway

Sandnes & Stavanger

These towns in the South of Norway are 15 km apart and comprise a population of about 300,000 in the metropolitan area.

Wikipedia advises “Sandnes is known as Norway’s bicycle city, mainly due to the fact that the bicycle manufacturer Øglænd DBS was situated here for decades. The city offers a variety of routes for everyday riders and tourists. ”
Sandnes was an early “trial” city for Norway in the improvements to cycling infrastructure.
Stavanger is on the massive “North Sea Cycle Route” a 6,000 km chain of exciting experiences waiting for the cycling tourist.
The route includes Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Scotland and England.

Utrecht & Groningen, Netherlands


It is pretty clear that the Netherlands takes the cake for use of cycles as real transport and Utrecht is probably the best of the bunch.
In this blog post Cyling In Utrecht Mark Treasure describes his very positive experience with a number of great photos.
He says :
“If I had to describe succinctly how cycling in Utrecht appeared to me, I would say that it is simply a different form of walking – a slightly faster one. There was no real distinction between the types of people walking, and the people cycling. Not in their clothes, nor in their ages or gender, nor in the way they talked to each other, nor in the way they seemed relaxed while moving about the city. Everybody appeared to cycle, and they do it easily, in normal clothes, and from door to door, chatting and smiling as they progress. Cycling looked, and felt, easy.”


And some links from the brilliant blog by cycling infrastructure guru David Hembrow provide further insight :
Non-stop relaxed cycling in Utrecht
A secondary cycling route in Utrecht
Bicycle rush hour Utrecht (Netherlands) 2011

And from…/Cycling-in-Utrecht-Aarhus-june2011.pdf we learn that “
“Bicycling and walking as the main method of transport in Utrecht each account for a large percentage of movements, respectively 33% and 25% (the average in the Netherlands is respectively 27% and 17%). These modes of transport are mainly dominant for movements over short distances, but even so a third of the movements up to 7.5 kilometres are made by car; a large number of these movements could also be made on foot or by bicycle. The car is for 30% and public transport for 9% the main method of transport.
Although the bicycle’s share of the total number of movements is 33%, up to a distance of 5 kilometres this is 42%. The bicycle’s share reduces considerably above a movement distance of 5 kilometres.

Houten is a “new” town of about 50,000 residents built in the past 40 years near Utrecht.
In  Houten – A City for Cyclists, Dana Petit says
“While many in the village were opposed to such dramatic growth, forward thinking leaders saw that developing Houten as a “bike city” could help to maintain the village’s small-town social dynamic and high quality of life.”
“Houten was designed so that cyclists can move about faster and more easily than motorists. The town has an extensive network of bike and pedestrian paths than extend radially from the shopping district at the town center through an extensive greenway system. Most residents can bike directly from their home to the center or even to a destination on the other side of town almost exclusively on bike paths. However, the road system only allows motorists to drive to the central shopping district, not through. If a motorist wants to get to a destination on the opposite side of town, they have to use the “ring road” (freeway) that wraps around the edge of town. Motorists are minimally inconvenienced since the ring road is a fast moving highway, and the cyclist’s experience is greatly improved by the extensive system of direct, car-free bike routes.”

Here are some detailed explanations of the planning :

Houten’s Bicycling Network by  Oliver Nowalski and Robert Meissnerand a Great YouTube Video


Wikipedia says :
“With a population of around 190,000, it is the largest city in the north of the Netherlands. Groningen is a university city, with University of Groningen and Hanze University of Applied Sciences both having about 25,000 students respectively.
Groningen has been called the “World Cycling City”, since 57% of journeys within the city are made by bicycle.The city is very much adapted to the wishes of those who want to get around without a car, as it has an extensive network of segregated cycle-paths, good public transport, and a large pedestrianised zone in the city centre. The transformation of the historic centre into a pedestrian priority zone enables and invites walking and biking by making these active modes of transport comfortable, safe and enjoyable. These attributes are accomplished by applying the principle of “filtered permeability”. It means that the network configuration favours active transportation and selectively, “filters out” the car by reducing the number of streets that run through the centre. While certain streets are discontinuous for cars, they connect to a network of pedestrian and bike paths which permeate the entire centre. In addition, these paths go through public squares and open spaces increasing the enjoyment of the trip (see image). The logic of filtering a mode of transport is fully expressed in a comprehensive model for laying out neighbourhoods and districts – the Fused Grid.”

Tokyo & Osaka, Japan.


I have only been to Tokyo once – about 20 years ago and I do remember being surprised at the number of bikes there were at the railway stations, usually unlocked. It was also surprisingly quiet for such a large city.

As Copenhagenize says : “Don’t Forget Japan”. They rate Japan as the world’s 3rd ranking cycling nation, after Denmark and The Netherlands. The piece links to a video and the producer says :
“According to my crude interpretation/analogy a society that cycles is more equal to the one that doesn’t.
Here in Japan grannies do it, kids do it, salary men do it, so do Yankees, the yakuza, teachers, nurses, office ladies, students, fashionistas, moms carrying an entire family, farmers, delivery men, chefs, the police, old men do it slowly with their knees sticking out, fixies, hipsters, local councilors, udon deliverers, students and anime characters do it too.

And they do it on the footpath and without fancy lyrca, fancy bikes and helmets too. They just do it. People cycle because it makes sense.

And it’s not that they don’t like their cars in Japan. It’s just that cycling makes sense.”

And in What Makes Japan a Great Cycling Nation? Byron Kidd describes that despite “terrible” bike infrastructure the Japanese use their bikes to get from home to the train station and to traverse their neighbourhoods.  A great deal of their needs are available close to home. The significant expense in owning (parking) a car also contributes. So the focus is short journeys rather than extended commutes.

In his piece Cycling Adventures: Tokyo John Greenfield says :
“There’s also tons of jitensha (“bicycles”), evidenced by vast bike lots at suburban train stations, Kasai Station’s Cycle Tree – an automated underground parking system with space for 6,480 vehicles – and the dozen or so bicycles parked curb-side on every other block. Thanks to the city’s low theft rate, most people simply put down their kickstand and free-lock.
Mama-chari (“Mama bikes”) rule the streets, or rather sidewalks, of Tokyo. These sensible commuter cycles are usually single or three speed, fully accessorized and often equipped with a shopping basket in front and a child seat in back. In the temperate winter weather, young adults on mama-chari sporting smart Anglophile fashions – men in Burberry jackets, slacks and scarves, women in peacoats, skirts and knee-high boots – are a common sight.”

Trip Advisor suggests this highly rated Tokyo Bike Tour company : Tokyo Great Cycling Tour
Various 6 hour tours are available for 10,000 JPY (about AUD $105).


Located at the mouth of the Yodo River on Osaka Bay, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city by population after Tokyo (special wards) and Yokohama.It is also the largest part of the Keihanshin metropolis, which comprises three major cities of Japan, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Keihanshin is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan by population and one of the largest metropolitan areas highly ranked in the world, with nearly 18 million people,and by GDP the second largest area in Japan and the seventh largest area in the world.
Osaka itself has a population of about 2.9 M people.
Paul Dorn: Cycling in Osaka, Japan
Paul says :
During my first visit to Japan, I was particularly struck by the position of cycling as a mainstream form of transportation. Everyone in Osaka, literally, rides a bicycle (“jitensha” or “chari”) at some time or another. Among the cyclists I observed during my brief visit were grandmothers shielded from the sun by umbrellas, well-dressed middle-aged “salary men,” mothers with one or two children aboard, police officers, students, Buddhist monks and blue collar workers. A high-ranking member of the city government, roughly equivalent to a deputy mayor, told me cycling is the best way to get around in Japan. (He told me this as our chauffeur-driven car was crawling in city traffic.)

Instead of seeing their bike as a precious piece of sports equipment, people in the Osaka Perfecture essentially view their bicycle as an extension of their shoes. You rarely see anyone riding fast, and no one wears a helmet.

Hangzhou & Beijing, China.


Hangzhou is located in southeast China.  It is the capital of Zhijiang Province.  It is also the economic, political and cultural centre.  It has a population of 6.77 million. January 2013 brings a report that Hangzhou now has 69,750 bicycles in 2,965 stations with 94,000,000 people riding the system annually. Yes, that is ninety-four million rides a year!
Watch this Street Film Video – The Biggest, Baddest Bike-Share in the World: Hangzhou China


CNN Travel says :
“Asia’s first city of cycling is renowned these days for its growing automobile traffic — but the infrastructure for cyclists here is still the best in Asia.
Bike lanes cover nearly every inch of the city. What’s more, small repair shops can be found on nearly every street, and shops selling cheap, secondhand bikes are legion.
For the timid, safety can be a concern. Helmets are nonexistent and Beijing’s breakneck biker veterans often exhibit an alarming disregard for traffic regulations.
Those wanting to ease into the flow might first wheel through Beijing’s hutongs to get a feel for the old road.
The labyrinth-like hutongs near Yonghegong are a great place to start. Once inside the maze, you’ll deal with less traffic, giving you plenty of time to see the sites — locals hanging laundry among bird cages, elderly women peddling vegetables, men playing chess on corners.”
The Guardian reports :
“Twenty years ago, four out of five residents in the Chinese capital pedalled to work through one of the world’s best systems of bicycle lanes. But the modern passion for cars has made two-wheeled transport so treacherous, dirty and unfashionable that barely a fifth of the population dares to use lanes that are now routinely blocked by parked cars and invaded by vehicles attempting to escape from the jams on the main roads.”

And back to CNN Travel again :
The old road: How to cycle around Beijing
“Yes, cars rule the roads now, but by following these biking routes, you can still pedal through the best of China’s capital” This story offers 5 fantastic routes through Beijing.

Münster & Greifswald , Germany


Münster, a University town in the North West claims to be Germany’s bicycle capital.
Munster is home 280,000 residents, including 55,000 students enrolled in six universities and colleges. The town claims nearly two bikes for each resident.

Bike is the most commonly used means of transport in Münster. A daily total of more than 100,000 people travel the roads by bike.
The city maintains an extensive network for bicycles. There are bicycle lanes and paths linking all the city districts with the inner city and there are special traffic light signals for bicycles.Bicycle stations in Münster offer bicycle rentals.
Münster is located at the heart of the Münsterland Cycling Region. Cycling is the perfect way to explore the flat parkland, which is dotted with old moated castles. The Münsterland cycling network covers 4,500 kilometres. It offers a wide selection of themed routes and circuits. The excellent infrastructure, which includes bed & bike accommodation, service and bike rental points and bicycle navigation systems, make the Münsterland a cycling paradise for leisure, sport and relaxation.

Here is an article by Glibert. N. Hansen, an American on sabbatical in Münster, describing his observations of the cycling infrastructure and culture  – Bicycling in Muenster, Germany


Greifswald is a University Town of about 55,000 on the Baltic sea coastline North East Germany.
According to a 2009 study, 44% of all people in Greifswald use their bicycle for daily transport within the town, which is the highest rate in Germany.


Hopefully that got you thinking. Cycling is not only a real mode of everyday transport but a great, relaxed way to get around on a holiday.
As well set up for cycling as many of these towns are – they are still working on improving their cycling infrastructure.
One thing that struck me about these towns is how many of them are University Towns.
What a great reinforcement that cycling is such a good fit for my home town – Adelaide, Australia – a University Town.


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