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The bike boom (+video)

Americans are using bicycles for transportation and recreation in record numbers as the fitness and green movements, as well as high energy costs, spur a two-wheel revolution.

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Nor is it just people riding their own 10-speeds. This year, 18 new cities will set up bike-share networks – a 50 percent increase over 2012 – allowing people to rent bikes for short jaunts across town.

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"I think we're at a new standard for cycling in America," says Ray LaHood, the outgoing US Secretary of Transportation. "I think we've reached the tipping point, and we're going way beyond that."

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Barbara Bitondo commuted for years in Washington, D.C. – by car, by bus, but none of it worked for her. She found mass transit too crowded, the roadways too coagulated. So she started riding her bike across town to work at the World Bank, which has cut down significantly on her travel time, even if she doesn't do it wearing Tour de France attire.

"I have had people tell me it takes a lot of guts to wear those high heels," says Ms. Bitondo of her standard riding shoes. "It definitely garners a lot of attention."

Riding a bicycle in the cloying humidity of the nation's capital in August, of course, can be a challenge. But the World Bank, in its effort to encourage alternative forms of transportation, provides changing rooms, showers, and hair dryers for its two-wheeled commuters. "You just have to bring your own towel," says Bitondo.

The World Bank has a special parking area to lock up bikes. Need to inflate a tire or adjust a seat? No problem. It provides pumps and tools to make repairs.

Traffic-free commutes is only one reason Americans are turning to bikes for transportation. Debi Farber Bush of Eureka, Calif., had a more personal rationale. She recounts how five years ago she weighed 350 pounds. Then she started eating better and exercising with a personal trainer. She dropped 100 pounds.

Two years ago, she decided to add cycling to her regimen. The more she pedaled, the more pounds she shed. Soon friends were encouraging Ms. Bush to participate in a century ride, a 100-mile bike trek, and to join the AIDS/LifeCycle, a seven-day journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for AIDS research.

Now Bush proudly shows photos of herself 200 pounds lighter and posing in a pair of voluminous jeans she wore just five years ago. "I hope to teach people that if I can do it, other people can do it," she says.

Many other Americans are turning to bikes for ecological reasons. They see a switch to two wheels as a way to combat climate change and fossil fuel use. Ken Reid of Santa Rosa, Calif., attended a showing of "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary about Al Gore's campaign to alert the public to the dangers of global warming, several years ago. Shortly thereafter, he began riding his bicycle to work four miles each way.

"Heat, cold, rain – nothing has tempted me to drive," says Mr. Reid, who trains dogs to assist people who have physical disabilities. "It is one thing I could do on a regular basis."

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Like Reid, many also say biking  simply makes life more interesting. David Waters, a pediatrician in Milwaukee, says commuting from his house to an inner-city section of the city gives him the chance to see people out jogging or walking their dogs. "I see humanity, and everyone looks at you and smiles and says 'hello,' " he says. "No one is honking at you."

Dr. Waters notes that Americans live in confined houses, drive around in confined cars, and work in confined office spaces. "Bicycling takes you out of the box, lets you smell, hear and experience the world around you," writes Waters in an e-mail. "Bicycling is part of the solution to every problem our society faces be it health, environment, economic, or social."


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