NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You sometimes need to be a Tour de France cyclist to make it easier to get from here to there on a bicycle instead of in a car, but you don't need to climb the Pyrenees to realize it's cheaper on two wheels.
With the average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. soaring to nearly $4 in May and still at $3.68, or a 35% hike from what drivers paid at the same time last year, low-mileage alternatives are gaining traction and bolstering the ranks of bicycle owners. The National Bicycle Dealers Association says the U.S. adult cycle industry took in $6 billion in sales last year with 13.5 million adult bikes sold. That's a 15% increase from $5.6 billion in sales and 10.2 million bikes sold in 2009, but still down from the $6.1 billion and 14 million bikes in pre-recession 2005.
Sales last year contributed to 39.3 million Americans riding a bike six times or more in 2010, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. That increased ridership 3% from 2009 and has made bicycle commuters of 10% of all riders. Bicycle-buying patterns have shifted as well, with commuter-favored hybrid/cross bikes rising from 14% of the bicycle market in 2005 to 21% last year and road bikes accelerating from 16% of the market a half-decade ago to 23% last year.Despite a surge in small, independent bicycle dealerships that make up only 14% of the bicycle market but 44% of the revenue, bicycles still tend to be an inexpensive and accessible option. Roughly 75% of Americans buy their bikes from discount stores such as Kmart (SHLD), Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT), while another 6% hit sporting goods stores such as Dick's (DKS) for their newest set of wheels. The roads are becoming more accessible to cyclists as well. New York City has more than 22,600 bicycle commuters alone, according to the League of American Bicyclists, and added bike paths on First and Second avenues, Columbus Avenue and Prospect Park West and a bicycle highway along the Hudson River to give it a nation-leading 500 miles of bike lanes. Los Angeles, meanwhile, squeezes nearly 17,400 bicycle commuters onto its more than 200 miles of lanes and paths each year. With bike commuters making up only 0.6% and 1% of those cities' populations, respectively, there's still a lot of room for improvement. With help from the League of American Bicyclists, TheStreet identified the 10 best bicycle cities based on the percentage of regular cyclists in their population. These are towns where the bike lanes and paths can resemble the Tour de France peleton and a spot on a bike rack can be as rare as on-street parking. College kids help tip the scales a bit in certain cities, but some of these towns are getting by on the businesspeople, bohemians and budget-conscious commuters who are just more comfortable pumping the pedals than hitting the gas:
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