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The bike boom (+video)

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It doesn't hurt, either, to know the numbers for bragging rights. Not long after Portland installed its counter, Seattle put in one of its own on the Fremont Bridge. Portland likes to note that it has more cyclists crossing the Hawthorne than Seattle does its span. (What's next in the great green rivalry of the Northwest – a bike path up the Space Needle?)

Part of the reason biking has boomed in Portland is simply geography. Compared with Seattle and San Francisco, the Oregon city is relatively flat. The weather, despite its reputation for being sodden, is bike-friendly, too. "It's pretty temperate year round," says Will Vanlue of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, which promotes cycling statewide.

The city has also installed almost 400 miles of bikeways and added 5,000 bike racks. And then there is Portland's bohemian culture, which celebrates biking in its own wacky way.

Tall-bike jousting contests are held each summer in Col. Summers Park, where riders square off and try to lance one another using what look like giant cotton swabs. Groups organize dozens of rides annually celebrating everything from the worst weather day (in February) to biking in various stages of undress (mercifully, in June).

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Still, Portland may not want to get too complacent about its position as bike capital of America – plenty of other cities are trying to establish themselves as citadels of spokes, too. Start with Long Beach, in the heart of the southern California car culture.

On a sun-kissed day, Allan Crawford, a Long Beach "mobility coordinator," takes a visitor on a tour of some of the city's investments in two-wheeled transportation. As he pedals down tidy streets of manicured lawns with hedges that grace humble but well-appointed California bungalows, Mr. Crawford pauses at a traffic light until street sensors register the bike's metal frame. Cross traffic gets a red light. He pedals forward.

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