Cities build new bike paths. Will cyclists come?

While some municipalities see a surge in bicycling, national figures for 2005 show the same number bike to work as did in 1990.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Three to four times a week, Jayme Bassett rides her 20-year-old Huffy bike five miles from home to the local metro-train stop. She uses a magnetized key to open the back door of a free-standing, concrete-and-glass building with the word "Bikestation" painted on the front window. The modern structure is ensconced in palm trees and raised above a cement pond, all just yards from platforms to buses and trains.

"Biking is the life," says Ms. Bassett, a teachers' credit union employee who takes a bus or train to complete her trip. "With the price of gas shooting up, smog, congestion, and all the rest, why do we need more cars, SUVs, and Hummers on the road?"

It's a refrain being heard across the United States as advocates push for more bike paths – and cities begin to build them.

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There's just one catch. For all the growth in two-wheel travel that some cities are experiencing, a nationwide surge in nonrecreational cycling has yet to materialize. US sales of bicycles peaked in 2005 then fell last year to their lowest level since 2001, according to projections by the National Bicycle Dealers Association. The share of adults bicycling to work was only 0.4 percent in 2005, according to census figures released last week, exactly the same percentage as in 1990 and 2000.

That has not stopped many cities from beefing up their biking infrastructure. For example:

•In Austin, Texas, $250 million worth of trails are planned for the metro area, including 32 miles directly through the town center.

•Dallas/Fort Worth has $900 million in bike trails planned. "Texas is reaching out to embrace biking like never before," says Robin Stallins of the Texas Bicycle Coalition. "That says a lot about a shift of cultural values."

•Chicago has unveiled a plan for 500 miles of designated bike routes.

•New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for 200 miles of bike paths throughout the city by 2009.

•Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels released a 10-year master plan in April to "make the city a world-class city for bicycling." It commits $240 million over the next decade for 452 miles of marked routes, bike facilities, roadway crossings and bridges, parking, and maps.

•San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last month set a goal for residents to use bikes for at least 10 percent of their trips by 2010. In 2005, 1.8 percent of workers age 16 or over commuted to work by bike, census data show.

Of course, such sweeping plans often run into fierce opposition when plans affect specific neighborhoods, bike advocates note. Others see bikers as special interest groups whose limited numbers don't deserve the new attention.

"Before they completely redesign the streets of San Francisco for the 1.8 percent of commuters who use bikes, they should at least consider what the wider impacts of their plan will be," says Rob Anderson, an activist who sued the city for failing to submit a required environmental-impact statement with its recent five-year bike plan. A court agreed, forcing a two-year study. "This is Progressive Land, where they do things for political reasons and not necessarily rational ones," adds Mr. Anderson.

Still, some cities report a rise in cycling. Seattle saw downtown bike traffic increase 57 percent during the morning rush hour between 1992 and 2000. San Francisco saw a 27 percent rise in Bike to Work Day participants this year compared with 2006.

If cities make biking easier and safer, proponents say, more residents will do it.

"One of the big deterrents to bicycle use as transportation is finding convenient, theft-proof parking places," says Andréa White, who heads Bikestation. "This trend has been building for years and is now poised to explode."

The Santa Barbara Bikestation – an $80,000 self-parking garage with showers, a changing area, and a bathroom – is an attempt to meet that need. A decade after the first US facility, Bikestations have sprung up in several California cities (San Francisco, Palo Alto, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, and Fruitvale) in addition to Seattle and Chicago. Many others are on the way.

Another measure of the move to biking is the growth of Thunderhead Alliance – a coalition of state and local bike and pedestrian organizations that help strengthen local advocacy groups. They have grown from 12 member organizations in 1996 to 128 coalitions in 49 states. The alliance's Complete the Streets Campaign has helped win legislation in 23 cities and nine states, which requires that streets be designed to be safe and accessible for all users.

"Roads have been viewed as places for cars only, but complete-streets policies say roads are for all people including bicyclists and pedestrians," says Kristen Steele of Thunderhead Alliance.

The group is working with organizations in 15 more states this year that will lobby Congress for a federal complete-streets policy.

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