Rich Withers would have everyone bicycling to work

No matter what the weather, Rich Withers of Bedford, Mass., bicycles seven miles a day to work. He quit riding the bus five years ago. "The bus just seemed like a waste of time," he says, adding: "There's a sense of self-sufficiently with biking."

Mr. Withers, president ofthe 800-member Boston Area Bicycle Coalition BABC), a private group which promotes cycling, is part of a movement toward bicycling to work that began in the early 1970s.

Even in the chill of winter, hardier bicycle commuters such as Rich Withers maintain their two-wheeled travel. In Southern regions, such as in Florida or much of California, a bicycle can be used year-round.

While only 470,000 Americans are estimated to have bicycled to work in 1975, their numbers have multiplied since then. Figures are not yet in from the 1980 census, but several state and municipal bicycle coordinators estimate there has been a 25 to 50 percent increase in bicycle commuters during the past five years.

These new bicycle commuters are being encouraged by a number of developments.

* Scores of bicycle paths, lanes, and routes, may intended primarily for commuters, have joined this nation's road network. More are planned.

* A growing number of state and municipal agencies are being funded to aid and promote biking. Private bicycling groups are becoming more numerous and active in advocating two-wheeled travel.

* Gasoline and transportation costs continue to increase, along with concerns about pollution from automobiles.

In addition, the US Department of Transportation, in compliance with the National Energy Conservation Policy Act of 1978, is devising programs to encourage bicycling to meet a target of 1.5 million to 2.5 million Americans biking to work by 1985. This could save between 55,000 and 75,000 barrels of oil a day, according to estimates.

Roads are an inhibiting factor, however. Bicycle advocates stress that much needs to be done to make them more hospitable for bicycles. Among the bicyclists' concerns is insensitivity among many motorists as well as the poor condition of the roads themselves. Many advocate better bicycle education for commuters.

According to the BABC's Mr. Withers, enthusiastic new bicycle commuters often pull their dustry old two-wheelers out of the basement, have a couple flats the first week on the aged tires, and then give up. To help, the BABC now sponsors a "Bike-Buddy" program which pairs veteran cyclists with prospective bicycle commuters for their first trip into work.

Dan Burden, bicycle coordinator for the State of Florida, says: "The biggest obstacle to bicycling is psychological. We've just been thinking about the bike so long as a toy."

The most important skills that can be taught to cyclists, asserts Mr. Burden, are bike handling and the ability to perceive danger.

Experimental education programs are being tested in two Florida cities to determine how best to set up a statewide system of bicycle-training programs.

To encourage cycling in Seattle, this city has set aside some 50 miles of trails, lanes, and special streets for biker use. At the same time cyclists are not restricted to these areas, as they have been in some other cities.

According to Joshua Lehman, Seattle bicycle coordinator: "We want to make biking a responsible part of the traffic flow. He adds: "You can't just says, 'OK, bikers, obey the law.'"

Seattle has trained 20 bicycle instructors to teach cycling. The city is also working to better inform cyclists of traffic laws and has printed a map for cyclists, cincluding existing and planned bikeways, with a list of laws on the back which pertain to bikers.

Portland, Ore., has gone even further with a map which color-codes the volume of traffic on certain streets for cyclists.

Rick Meyers, program assistant for the city's biking and pedestrian program, estimates that perhaps as much as 1.5 percent of the commuting population pedals to work in his city, compared with .6 percent nationally.To further encourage cycling, Portland is developing a network of streets that are most suited for use by cyclists.

In some cases, where streets are narrow, automobile parking has been banned on one side to aid bikers.

Other cities have been experimenting by mixing bicycles with mass transit.

In San Diego, commuters have been allowed for the past four years to latch their bikes onto the rear of some buses. Sixteen buses on three separate routes are equipped with racks, each holding five bicycles.

According to Lotte Cogle of the San Diego Planning Department, bus schedules rarely need to be changed because loading is permitted only at certain stops.

One of the thorniest questions involved in bicycle commuting is where to park the bike once you get to the job. Many companies don't allow bicycles in their buildings and rarely provide parking facilities for bikers.

Without these facilities, many cyclists have been loath to risk losing their increasingly expensive equipment to the theft.

A number of areas are installing lockers in public buildings. Others are putting bicycle parking facilities in subway stations.

In California, the state Legislature has passed a law requiring all state buildings to have safe parking facilities for bicyclists. In addition, next year's proposed California Transportation Department budget includes $1 million for installing parking facilities in private companies.

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