The Cycling Commute Gets Chic
To Encourage Biking, Cities
Add Paths, Racks and Lockers;
To Shower or Not to Shower?
By KEVIN HELLIKER
May 11, 2006
Commuting to work by bike has renewed appeal right now. On top of health benefits -- like offering a chance to exercise without taking extra time -- it saves on the growing cost of fuel and even carries a certain cachet at the office.
A growing number of cities are making it easier to ride your bike to work -- erasing hurdles big and small, from securing bikes safely downtown, to taking bikes on public transit, to finding a discreet place to shower.
Eager to reduce traffic jams and pollution, cities including Chicago; Louisville, Ky.; and Portland, Ore. are adding biking-policy departments at city hall, constructing bike lanes or building bike stations where riders can park and shower. A 2004 survey of American cities found that more than 80% planned to build new bikeways. A new contest over which American cities are friendliest to cyclists has attracted 160 municipal contestants, each bragging about its bike lanes and lock-up racks.
Nationally, a bill introduced in the Senate last month would give employers a tax incentive to offer employees $40 to $100 a month to cycle to work, and a similar bill is pending in the House.
Buses and trains are allowing bikes to come on board in cities including Albuquerque; Washington, D.C.; and Boulder, Colo. In Chicago, Allison Krueger, a 26-year-old botanist, now can ride three miles to Union Station, catch a train to the suburbs, then cycle three more miles to her office. "The best part of cycling is the sheer joy of riding past people stuck in traffic," she says. Plus, she adds, "Biking is definitely fashionable in Chicago."
There are other signs that the cities' efforts are working. New York City opened a 17-mile bike trail on the west side of Manhattan, along with bike paths on the bridges connecting the island to Brooklyn, in 2003 -- and has seen a 50% increase in cyclists since 2000, to 120,000 cyclists a day, according to advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. A three-year-old bike station in Chicago is poised to sell out 500 memberships for the third year in a row. And the percentage of commuters using bikes rises a percentage point for every mile of bike lane added per square mile of American cities, said a 2003 study on bike lanes in the journal Transportation Research Record. The name of the study: "If You Build Them, Commuters Will Use Them."
One of the newest urban innovations: bike stations, which an increasing number of downtowns from various California cities to Washington, D.C., have added or are considering adding. Bike stations offer a safe place to park, along with lockers, showers and repair shops. The Chicago bike station, built and owned by the city, is run by a private company, which charges members $99 a year for showers, towel service and a personal locker. Denver, Seattle and Berkeley, Long Beach and Palo Alto, Calif., all have similar bike stations.
The rising price of gas is adding to the appeal of cycling. Shipments of bicycles in the last year have been extraordinarily strong -- one of the two best years in the past two decades, says Tim Blumenthal, director of an industry coalition called Bikes Belong. "There's a lot of buzz right now about high gas prices," he says.
"The 5,000 miles I'll cycle this year are 5,000 miles I'm not putting on my car's odometer and fueling with high-priced gas," says Eric Carter, an attorney in Portland whose two-wheeled commute has helped him knock off 30 pounds.
In a trend reminiscent of previous public-health fashions, affluent professionals seem to be leading the charge of commuters on bikes, just as they were among the first groups to embrace organic food, to stop smoking and to return to feeding babies healthier breast milk rather than formula. "So far, it's a white-collar movement," says Dave Growacz, a Chicago biking official and author of the book "The Urban Bikers' Tricks & Tips."
Cycling has some serious disadvantages. A cyclist may arrive at work dripping sweat and with helmet-mashed hair -- and that's in good weather. J.P. Morgan Chase Vice President Luz Byrne no longer cycles on rainy days. "I got tired of washing the mud out of my hair in a sink," she says.
Managing the logistics of work-out clothes and office apparel is difficult. Jerry Roscoe, a cycling attorney in Washington, D.C., arrives each morning in biking clothes, grabs a shirt and suit from his office, goes to a nearby gym to shower, then returns to the office ready to work. "It's complicated," he says.
Of course, many bikers don't shower upon arriving at the office. Mr. Growacz's book offers tips on how to wear a helmet without messing up your hair.
The biggest downside of cycling is wrecks, particularly with cars. Per kilometer traveled, a cyclist in America is 12 times likelier than a car occupant to be killed, according to a 2003 American Journal of Public Health article. Three cars have slammed Mr. Roscoe, including one that hit him intentionally. "She said I was going too slow," he says. In motorists, cyclists can trigger rage. And because cycling trails often double as walking trails, cyclists can be a pest and even a hazard to pedestrians.
Yet the number of cyclists killed in America fell nearly 10% to 724 during the decade that ended in 2004, according to federal statistics. And studies show that as the number of cyclists increase, collisions with automobiles decline because motorists become more alert to bikers' presence.
The danger of cycling is far outweighed by the benefits, says Rutgers University's John Pucher, a professor of urban planning specializing in cycling issues. Cycling builds muscle, deepens lung capacity, lowers heart rate and burns calories. "The health benefits of cycling outweigh the health risks by two to one, if not something like five to one," says Dr. Pucher, whose voice mail describes him as "car-free John."
Write to Kevin Helliker at firstname.lastname@example.org
I tried by own bit of multi-modal transport Wednesday night. I need a set of Albatross bars and thought I'd stop in at Hiawatha Cyclery before church choir practice and get 'em. Given the time constrains, my laziness and a stiff west wind, I decided to take the bus, throwing the Atlantis on the front of the number 61 and going downtown, then transferring to the Light Rail and taking it to the Veterans Administration Hospial stop, a short ride from Hiawatha.
This went pretty well. I'd forgotten how the bike rack thing worked but a transit enthusiast on the bus leapt off and showed me. The bike seemed a bit shaky on there and I watched it nervously all the way downtown. A block from the LRT station (Hennepin & 5th), the bike suddenly started leaning waaaay forward. Yikes! I could just imagine my lovely Atlantis pretzelled up underneath the bus! The driver stopped and said, hey man, your bike's falling off. I got off and removed it, it was just a block away from my stop anyway, and took it off. The hook that goes over the front wheel had come off. I folded the rack up (very important) and strolled down to the station and onto the train.
The LRT runs off sort of an honor system. I haven't ridden it since it opened, when Henry and I took it that free weekend with our bikes. I had a valid transfer, but there's nobody to check it. I got on, hung the bike up on the hooks on the wall of the rail car and sat down. Off we went, down to the VA Hospital. I guess the transit police do spot checks for valid tickets and not having one is a pretty hefty ($180) fine. I got out, saddled up, and rode the quarter mile or so to Hiawatha, which...
...was closed. Closed Wednesdays. Damn. Sunday, heading home from church in downtown Minneapolis (the ladies were singing the Offertory at our church, so I took the opportunity for a rare in-choir-season visit to another church, Gethsemane Episcopal, where I parked the Atlantis in the church basement gym where, weirdly, the Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers used to hold their basketball practices) I stopped at the Hub Bike Co-op on Riverside at 12:15PM and stood looking at the sign that said Open 12-4 Sundays on the front door of the darkened store. Maybe being an employee-owned store means every employee is an owner and can decide to open late. Hiawatha was posted as being closed Wednesdays, a pity, since that's my only regular day in south Minneapolis. Oh well. I'll have to stop in this weekend.
I rode off to church for choir practice and afterwards rode home, a fast trip with a steady tailwind helping my much of the way. I decided to look at my usual sites before heading to bed and discovered from this article how cool I was.