Commuter Cycling Shifts Gears

Cost, environmental factors contribute to doubling number of Americans who pedal to work

FOR Henry Mory of Yorba Linda, Calif., breezing in to work by bicycle is one fine way to begin the day.Instead of driving his normal 10-mile commute along a busy highway, Mr. Mory enjoys the smell of fruit trees while pedaling along a scenic route to his La Habre, Calif., office. "I think it's very enjoyable," says Mory, who works for a discount food-store chain. "I think that by the time you get to work you're nice and vibrant and you feel good about yourself." But the best part of his new commuting experience is the free mountain bike his company gave him as an incentive to bike to work instead of driving. The company, Alpha Beta Markets, a divison of Food 4 Less Supermarkets Inc., offers a new bike to employees willing to commute by bicycle at least three times a week. Bicycling advocates say biking to work is catching on. And Alpha Beta's free-bike offer is just one example of how it is encouraged as a way to cut down on car traffic and pollution. According to the Bicycle Federation of America in Washington, D.C., from 1983 to 1990 the number of bicycle commuters in the country more than doubled. In addition, a Bicycling Magazine poll conducted by Louis Harris and Associates last fall found that a projected one in 60 Americans, or 2.8 million people, commute by bicycle. That figure could rise to more than one in five Americans, or 35 million people, if bicycle transportation needs were improved, the poll concludes. To the environmentally conscious public, the bicycle is attractive: It doesn't waste energy, and it is smog-free. It can also be the fastest way of getting around, especially in urban areas prone to frequent gridlock. In fact, urban dwellers, who tend to live closer to work, are twice as likely to commute by bike than people living in suburbs, according to the Harris poll. "The bike is competitive with the car in an urban setting," says John Allen, president of the Boston Area Bicycling Coalition. "It's competitive because bikes are not stopped by traffic jams and because you travel from door to door. You don't have to park your bike five miles from work in a parking lot." Today's commuting bikers are hard to miss. They are seen in the morning and afternoon commuting hours, dodging parked cars and potholes. Many wear helmets, but commuting attire varies. Men may bike in suit coats and ties, and women may wear skirts and nylon stockings. Others prefer sweat pants or shorts and change into professional clothes later. "I love bicycling," says Walter Lander, a Boston mountain-bike commuter, who sports a suit jacket and tie while biking. "It's good for [you] and it's good for the environment." The rising popularity of the mountain bike may be a factor in the increasing number of bike commuters - especially in urban settings, says Marcia Lowe, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., who has studied bicycle tranportation. She says the moutain bike's thick tires, large seat, and upright handlebars make commuting more comfortable for some riders than the 10-speed racing bike. "For the city commuter and the commute on real bumpy roads that are poorly patched and have glass on them - you really can't beat a mountain bike," Ms. Lowe says. Many commuters still resist the idea of pedaling to the office. Safety is a big concern. A projected 20 percent of American adults say they would sometimes commute to work if there were safe bicycle lanes on roads, according to the Harris poll. "A lot of people find it more relaxing to ride on a bike path than next to traffic," says Lowe. "Riders who are skillful and alert enough don't usually have problems riding along city streets." City cyclists admit the daily commute isn't always a joy ride. Joanne Larrabee cycles from one end of town to another to get to her Cambridge, Mass., computer job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ve had a couple of close calls - the usual car-door-opening-without-looking kind of stuff. It's kind of nerve-wracking," she says. Cycling advocates, however, say the danger can be minimized if safety precautions are taken and traffic rules are obeyed. [See related article.] In 1989, there were 861 bicycle deaths in the US, the lowest number in a decade, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It's more of a perceived danger than a real one," says Jim Fremont, spokesman for the Bicycling Federation of America. "One of the things people can do if they do think it's dangerous is to try to research a better route to work than the one they drive." According to the Harris study, a projected 18 percent of all adults say they would bike to work if their employers offered financial or other incentives. Some employers, such as Alpha Beta Markets, are already doing that. Glendale, Ariz., gives away unclaimed stolen bicyles to city employees if they promise to ride them to work at least three times a week. N some areas, employers are required to offer transportation alternatives to their employees. The Alpha Beta Markets bike deal was offered as a way to comply with local regulations requiring large-scale employers to provide incentives to employees to either use mass transit, car-pool, or bike to work. Commuters say improved office facilities would also help. A projected 17 percent of all adults say they would ride their bicycles to work if their offices had adequate shower and storage facilities, according to the Harris poll. Boston cyclists acknowledge that it can get sweaty during the summer months. Bob Grace, a management consultant from Brookline, Mass., sits on his well-used touring bike, tie loosened over his wrinkled shirt. "You get a little bit hot to start the day," he says, as he sips a plastic bottle of spring water. "[But] it's a whole lot more enjoyable than jostling on a crowded, sweaty, T [Boston subway car]." Rising gasoline prices are another incentive for cyclists. If fuel prices rise substantially, the Harris poll projects that 15 percent of adults say they would sometimes commute by bicycle. Some cities require shower facilities for bikers. In Palo Alto, Calif., for example, new commercial buildings of 10,000 square feet or more must install showers. A city zoning ordinance also provides that for each parking space required for new buildings, one bicycle locker must be installed. Western US cities have made progress in improving bicycle transportation. Seattle boasts a entire network of bicycle trails. Bikers can ride 26 miles into downtown Seattle on specially designed bike trails and lanes. Seattle was ranked No. 1 in Bicycling Magazine's survey of the "10 Best Cycling Cities." The other cities are: Palo Alto, Calif.; San Diego; Boulder, Colo.; Davis, Calif.; Gainesville, Fla.; Eugene, Ore.; Montreal; Madison, Wis.; and Missoula, Mont.

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