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New bike commuters hit the classroom, then the road

The rush of new cyclists, created by high gas prices, is driving up demand for bike safety classes.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 2008

Pedal power: Bikers on their morning commute on a street in San Francisco Aug. 20. Cities are figuring out how to accommodate the increasing number of bikers on the roads.

Tony Avelar/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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San Francisco

Like many Americans, Tara Collins hadn't bicycled much since middle school. That changed this year when she started paying $50 to fill up her gas tank.

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Since early July Ms. Collins has been biking to her job in San Francisco. Now she's sitting in Bert Hill's bicycle safety course – along with 31 others – after a close shave with a van.

"When that happened I thought, 'Wow, there probably are things I could learn about safety,' " says Ms. Collins. "I haven't been on a bike in years, and even when I did, it wasn't in traffic."

The high price of gas is creating a surge in bicycle commuting across the country, not just in West Coast cities but in places like Louisville, Ky., and Charlotte, N.C. The rush of newbies has triggered tensions with drivers unaccustomed to sharing the road, and driven cyclists to seek out traffic training.

"I'm getting hammered by mayors asking, 'What are you doing about all these new bikers on the street and nobody knows the rules of the road?' " says Robert Raburn, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition in Oakland. When the organization started classes in 2003, it offered maybe two a year. Now, it has six slated for September with two more to be announced.

In the Bay State, MassBike reports offering two dozen classes this year, compared with three the year before.

The trend slips under the radar of national data, but phone calls to various city governments reveals a strong uptick in bike commuting this year:

• Bike count tallies showed an increase of 30 percent over last year on San Francisco's Market Street, 44 percent over 2006 levels at the intersection of Broad and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, and 378 percent from five years ago on Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago.

• New bikers are maxing out the capacity of transit systems across the country. Bikers boarding buses in Houston rose from 1,510 in April to 3,624 in June, according to the League of American Bicyclists, which also reports that Charlotte's bike-on-bus boardings have reached an all-time record, surging 30 percent this June from a year ago. On San Francisco's regional CalTrain, a quarter of rush hour trains surveyed in September "bumped" bikers because onboard racks had reached capacity.

• In Denver, this year's 'Bike to Work Day' drew 35,000 bikers, up 43 percent over last year.

High gas prices are changing transportation habits. For eight straight months, Americans have driven fewer miles than they did over the same period a year earlier, according to the US Department of Transportation.

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