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Bike to Bus: Joshua Poppel demonstrates how to use CDTA’s bike racks.


A surge in commuter cycling prompts policymakers to reassess their approach to transportation planning, and consider making the streets more bike-friendly

By Shannon Brescher Shea

Unlike most teenagers, 18-year-old Tom Nestle doesn’t rely on his parents or an unreliable car to get him from place to place. Until his high-school graduation this past spring, he relied on his muscles and bicycle to carry him the 18 miles between his Castleton home, his rowing practice on the Hudson River, and the Christian Brothers Academy. Even sub-freezing weather didn’t prevent his daily ride. In fact, his first bicycle-commuting experience occurred two years ago on a freezing February day, when he rode from the Hudson River to Wolf Road. While most people might have vowed never to repeat the experience, Nestle thought, “That’s not so bad.” Since then, he’s found safer routes, dodged potholes, ignored rude drivers, improved his sense of direction, and kept on pedaling, no matter what.

Nestle, the New York Bicycle Coalition Youth Commuter of the Year, is part of a group of people who view bicycling as more than just recreation. Whether committed commuters or professional activists, bicycling advocates consider cycling a sustainable, essential mode of transportation. This passion drives them to improve cycling infrastructure, education, and awareness, so that everyone can cycle safely and enjoyably.

In contrast, Americans tend to take their cars for granted. The average American spends an hour each day in a car, and that number rises to one and a half hours a day for people ages 35 to 44. Even though 41 percent of trips are less than two miles long, Americans use cars to carry out the large majority of them, according to a 2003 study. All of this motorized transport contributes to health problems that cost the country $22 billion a year, according to the League of American Bicyclists. In addition, driving has caused a host of social and environmental problems, from air pollution to suburban sprawl. Claire Nolan, a member of the Albany Bicycle Coalition and New York Bicycling Coalition, says, “The automobile is only 100 years old, and in those 100 years, it’s pretty much destroyed everything.”

Clearly, Nolan would like to change this situation. And she certainly has company. “For personal reasons, for community reasons, for society at large, we ought to be embracing the idea that more people get back on their bikes and start riding,” says League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke.

Among the many advantages touted by cycling advocates, they report that it saves them money. “I’m certainly not as impacted by the increase in gas prices,” says Joshua Poppel, the executive director of NYBC. A cycle commuter for the past eight years, he says he can go at least six weeks without filling his car’s gas tank.

Although it seems counterintuitive, many bicyclists say that cycle commuting also saves them time, particularly in congested areas. “Riding into work, especially if you’re riding by a lot of people who are stuck in traffic, is very satisfying,” says Poppel. For the last five years, the NYBC has held a commuter contest between a car driver, bus rider, and cyclist. Riding the five and a half miles through the city from downtown Albany to Stuyvesant Plaza, the cyclist has beaten his or her opponents every year.

Above all, many bicycle commuters describe finding personal satisfaction in the act itself. “I find myself much happier when I bike,” says David Bulnes, another winner of NYBC’s Commuter of the Year award. “It’s a good way to clear your head.”

Cycling advocates also point to benefits of cycling that extend beyond the individual. “I think from a societal point of view, bicycling can be almost as close to a magic bullet as we can find these days,” says Poppel. He asserts that it improves public and environmental health by increasing exercise and reducing pollution. Even a representative of the New York State Department of Transportation, a notoriously automobile-centric agency, agrees that it improves the roads for all. Drivers benefit from cycling too, as cyclists decrease congestion and time spent languishing in traffic. “It’s an absolute benefit to the entire system,” says Donald Hannon, director of the Office of Integrated Modal Services for the NYSDOT.

Locally, proponents say that a cycling culture can improve a city’s economy and quality of life. “The community is something that can be defined [as] a place where people of all ages and all abilities can safely get around on the streets on bicycle,” says Ian Klepetar, founder of Bicycle Benefits, an organization that offers cyclists discounts at local businesses.

The League of American Bicyclists refers to this ideal as a Bicycle Friendly Community. Cities that earn this designation have met the league’s standards in bicycle-friendly engineering (infrastructure), education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation and planning. Clarke says the program’s purpose is “to give communities the road map, or the bike map—the conditions in place to ensure people are comfortable riding.”

Several of the earliest designated Bicycle Friendly Communities are now seeing their efforts pay off. Portland, Ore., has been building its bicycle infrastructure for 15 years, over which time the number of cyclists has quadrupled, according to Clarke. Residents there drive two miles less each day than the average American. A micro-economy has grown to accommodate cyclists, and many tourists visit the city because of its green credentials. Likewise, Boulder, Colo., has experienced no increase in vehicle miles traveled per year, while the surrounding region shows a 2- to 4-percent increase. “They can now document the dividend, the return on investing in a more bicycle-friendly community,” Clarke says. “Bicycling and walking are, we think, indicator species of a great quality of life.”

Yet, despite these benefits, only a small percentage of the population cycles for transportation. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, only 1.2 percent of people used a form of transit that was not driving or carpooling, walking or using public transportation. In New York, there were 25,036 bicycle commuters, only 0.3 percent of the population. Although the number of cyclists has risen recently, it continues to be relatively small in comparison to automobile drivers.

Perceived danger appears to be the major reason why commuters choose not to cycle to work. “I think the bottom line is people don’t see themselves doing it because of the safety and that comfort factor,” says Clarke. Similarly, Jeff Pepper, the general manager of CK Cycles on Central Avenue in Albany, says, “I think every cyclist, if their commute is close enough, would ride to work. The only thing stopping them is the roads.”

This perception of danger is not unfounded. There are six ghost bike memorials in the Albany area, each white bicycle a tribute to a cyclist who was killed while riding. In 2006, 773 cyclists were killed nationally, with 45 of those fatalities in New York state. Per kilometer, cyclists are 12 times more likely to be killed than occupants of a car. On a national level, cyclists are far less safe in America than in European countries. American cyclists are twice as likely to be killed while riding than German cyclists, and three times more likely than Dutch cyclists.

Then again, these statistics are slowly improving in cyclists’ favor. The total number of accidents in New York state has declined by 1,303 from 2001 to 2006. But, as the number of fatalities has not decreased, bicycle advocates say that the state must continue to improve its efforts.

Increasing bicycle-friendly infrastructure to improve safety is a major focus of the NYBC and the League of American Bicyclists. NYBC describes three types of safe roads for bicyclists: “shared lane” roads that have slow, low traffic; wide-lane roads that allow cyclists and cars to ride side by side; and roads with shoulders at least 5 feet wide. Safe roads are also well lit, have a minimal number of trucks and buses, and have space for cyclists on bridges and tunnels.

Although administrators often address roads on a case-by-case basis, the NYBC is pushing the state Legislature to enact a “complete streets” policy that would encompass all of these requirements. These policies require that new and reconstructed roadways are designed to accommodate all potential users, no matter their age, ability, or mode of transit. “They haven’t been doing a sufficient job,” says Poppel. “They need to be a leader.” On the national level, the Federal Safe and Complete Streets Act recently was passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate simultaneously for the first time.

In addition to shoulders, many cities are also installing marked bicycle lanes and paths, which can be built in as part of road maintenance. This is challenging because lanes and paths must form a coherent network, since fragmented routes that do not lead to commercial areas are impractical for commuters.

Whether riding on a road or a path, cyclists require smooth, well-kept surfaces. Both Bulnes and Nestle says that potholes and deteriorated shoulders have posed major problems for them. If shoulders and lanes are not well-kept, cyclists can be forced to ride on the roads with drivers who do not expect them to be there. “You deal with people who get irate because they don’t see little potholes, little cracks in the pavement,” says Bulnes. “If I’m on the left side of that solid white line, they seem to think I’m encroaching on their [space].”

Fortunately, bike trails cost far less to maintain than normal roads. A one-mile paved bicycle trail costs about $6,500 a year, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. In contrast, officials in the Sacramento, Calif., region estimate that they spend $250 million a year on 10,000 miles of roadway, or $25,000 per mile per year. Recently, New York Gov. David Paterson signed a NYBC-supported bill introduced by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt into law, allowing bicycle and pedestrian paths to qualify for special matching transportation funds.

Traffic calming and smart growth also improve cycling infrastructure. Using physical alterations, such as one-way streets and speed bumps, traffic calming can limit driving speeds to 20 miles an hour. These techniques have reduced accidents in Dutch neighborhoods by 20 to 70 percent. Smart-growth policies limit sprawl by encouraging builders to construct commercial and residential areas close together. “You can look at places like Portland, Ore., that’s really focused on those smart-growth measures for 20 years, [and] you can see their vibrancy,” says Poppel.

Infrastructure is only one piece of the solution. A good relationship between drivers and cyclists is essential for cyclist safety, and education is key to improving drivers’ attitudes. “A lot of motorists don’t feel like cyclists deserve part of the road,” Nestle says. “A lot of people get up behind you, get close to you, honk at you, make obscene gestures at you.” Similarly, Bulnes says that one of the most difficult parts of his commute is “dealing with a culture that doesn’t accept alternative means of transportation.”

To shift motorists’ perspectives, bicycle advocates are encouraging the state to modify its driver-education program. Although Ken Brown, spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles, says that motorists must show awareness of bicycle safety to pass their exams, advocates believe that the agency should go further. NYBC has a share-the-road safety campaign, which would require driver-education curricula to include bicycle and pedestrian awareness. In the meantime, the coalition has assembled materials that many driver-education instructors have voluntarily adapted into their curricula. In recognition of their efforts, the American Automobile Association has awarded the coalition an award for improving safety.

Undoubtedly, some drivers will break the law regardless of education. Here, legal enforcement enters the picture. In Europe, stronger enforcement against reckless motorists has lowered the accident rate. In their Bicycle Friendly Community program, the League of American Bicyclists offers recognition to city police departments that have a bicycle liaison, bicycling division, and targeted enforcement of safe sharing of roads.

Automobile drivers are not the only ones who can benefit from refresher classes. There are many cyclists who are unaware of or ignore traffic-safety laws. According to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, bicyclist or pedestrian error or confusion contribute to accidents about 1.5 times more than driver inattention. Although advocates say that the recording of those statistics is skewed in favor of drivers, they acknowledge cyclist behavior contributes to about half of all accidents.

Many of these collisions occur as a result of cyclist ignorance. “The biggest mistake that’s made is that we ride like children,” says Nolan. “We get in a car and we act one way, and we get on a bicycle and ride another way. That kills cyclists.” Especially for cyclists who have not ridden in years, if not decades, traffic conditions may have changed dramatically since they first learned how to ride. “The laws are not always intuitive,” says Clarke. Riding on the sidewalk and riding against traffic are two of the major factors contributing to accidents, he explained.

There are classes available through the League of American Bicyclists and NYBC that can provide cyclists with the knowledge they need. The classes emphasize the basics: riding with traffic, not riding on the sidewalk (riding on the sidewalk is illegal in New York state), being predictable, being visible, using hand signals, and following all traffic laws. When bicyclists fulfill their responsibilities, drivers come to expect certain behavior and drive differently as a result. “The more I follow the rules of the road, the better I get treated,” says Nolan.

To provide this training, NYBC has received $60,000 of funding from the Safety Traffic Commission to run a three-year educational program for adults and children. “The education courses that we do are really essential in addressing people’s fears,” says Poppel. The League of American Bicyclists also offers classes that focus on maintenance, commuting and teaching children cycling.

Safety is not the only problem facing bicycle commuters, as many also struggle with cycle storage and personal comfort. Although bicycle storage at workplaces can be lacking, an increasing number of businesses are installing secure racks. After one of her constituents biked to work and had to return home when she found there was nowhere to store her bicycle there, New York Assemblywoman Joan Millman proposed a bill that would require buildings in New York City to provide secure bicycle storage. If the bill passes, other cities in the state may be more willing to adopt similar regulations. To address the issue of personal comfort, many cyclists bring clothes with them, and use showers at nearby health clubs. If the weather is exceptionally bad, hopping on a bus is an option, as all CDTA buses are now equipped with bicycle racks.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle that blocks the bike commuter’s path is a lack of public acceptance. “It has become looked down upon in our society,” says Ian Klepetar. Claire Nolan agrees: “You’re looked down upon as a second-class citizens.” And the perception that bicycling is inherently inferior to driving often is echoed in the media. Earlier this year, Internet outrage convinced State Farm to pull an ad that featured a commuter who looked humiliated because rising gas prices had forced him to bike to work.

By establishing Bicycle Benefits, Klepetar hopes to change that attitude. Through the program, cyclists buy helmet stickers that earn them the right to discounts at local businesses. Although the program started in Saratoga Springs—which now has 53 participating locations—cities around the country have now adopted it. “[It] treats the customer a little bit better if they arrive on bicycle rather than on automobile. I think that’s an important step to increasing bicycle trips,” Klepetar says.

Bicycle sharing programs also increase the public’s exposure to cycling. Vélib, the immensely popular bike-sharing program in Paris, has made more than 10,000 bicycles available across the city. Similarly, the Bikes Belong coalition made 1,000 bicycles available to delegates at both this year’s Democratic and Republican conventions. Washington D.C. recently launched the SmartBike DC program, America’s first self-service public bicycle-rental program. Members pay $40 per year, and can use bikes available at 10 locations for up to three hours at a time. Unlike previous bicycle-sharing programs in which obstacles included stolen bicycles, this program charges the cyclist a $500 fee if the bicycle is not returned within 24 hours. Both San Francisco and New York City are investigating the possibility of establishing similar programs.

Although advocates believe there is further to go before Americans fully embrace cycle commuting, the wheels are turning in New York. The NYSDOT, traditionally known for its focus on automobile transportation to the detriment of other forms of transit, is developing five major new bike routes: two from the south shore of Lake Ontario south toward Pennsylvania; one in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island; one from Plattsbugh through Watertown and Syracuse to Binghamton; and one from Lockport through Buffalo and along Lake Erie to Pennsylvania. This project will increase the number of marked bicycle routes by 1,000 miles, in addition to the three routes that already exist.

Even though the state is slow in planning projects, Hannon is glad there is an increased awareness of cyclists’ needs. “In the 25 years I’ve been here, the key accomplishment is that we’re talking about bicycle [issues] and it is part of the mainstream thinking,” he says.

On a smaller level, 11 new cities became Bicycle Friendly Communities this past May. Although New York City is the only Bicycle Friendly Community in the state, there is potential for local communities to expand their efforts. Recently, Schenectady officials included traffic-calming measures in their State Street reconstruction plans, and a number of new bicycle racks have been installed in Albany. Only a few weeks ago, the Albany County government announced that it is seeking authorization to purchase nine miles along the former Delaware and Hudson Railway to build a public trail that would connect Delmar and Albany.

Even the general public, largely inspired by high gasoline prices, has turned its eye toward cycle transportation. “I haven’t seen it this busy, especially service work, in years and years and years,” says Jeff Pepper of CK Cycles. “Anything to not start the car makes people happy.” Similarly, the NYBC and bicycle advocacy groups around the country have reported a surge in interest. In the past 18 months, the NYBC has experienced a 15-percent increase in membership. Although they only began preregistering participants for Bike to Work Day this year, they had 227 cyclists sign-up, with many more participating informally. Similarly, Denver, which has run a Bike to Work Day for 15 years, had more than 2,500 people preregister and about 3,500 actually participate this year, a 43-percent increase from 2007. “That is indicative of that sort of shift that we’re doing, the interest we’re seeing,” says Clarke. In terms of daily cycling, San Francisco’s citywide bicycle count reported an increase of 15 percent from 2006 to 2007 alone. Likewise, New York City has seen cycle commuting rise by almost 78 percent from 1990 to this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Ultimately, bicycle advocates look forward to a future where everyone can ride their bicycles without fear. “One of the best indicators [of a bicycle-friendly community] is kids riding their bike out alone,” says Poppel. But they believe fulfilling that future does not rest solely on the shoulders of policymakers. Rather, advocates say it is the responsibility of every individual who enjoys and believes in biking to take action by getting out on the road. They say that increasing the number of cyclists in the streets raises visibility, increases awareness of cyclists’ right to the road, and inspires others.

As Nolan says, “I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, ‘You know why I ride a bicycle? Because I saw you riding a bicycle and you looked like you were having a good time doing it.’"


Tips for bicycle commuting

Wear a helmet. A helmet is the single most effective way to prevent head injury resulting from a bicycle crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Obey all traffic laws and be predictable. Bicyclists have a right to the road, but they are also responsible for following the same rules as cars.

Decide your route ahead of time and ride it on a weekend before you commute into work. You can use this test run to judge the amount of time it will take, your level of fitness, and potential problems.

Have a bicycle shop tune up your bicycle. Learn basic maintenance, such as repairing flats and fixing chains.

Bring a change of clothes into work before riding in, or keep multiple sets of clothing in the office.

Bring a water bottle, or even two. In the summer, it is easy to become dehydrated.

If you are nervous about traffic, or will be cycling through a heavily trafficked area, take a beginner class with the League of American Bicyclists. Certified instructors can teach you the basics of navigating traffic and solving common commuting problems.

Wear appropriate clothing that is brightly colored or reflective. If you are wearing long pants, use ankle straps to prevent them from catching in the gears or bicycle chain. Bring rain gear in case of bad weather.

Invest in a quality lock and lock your bicycle to an immovable object in a visible area. If available, park your bicycle indoors.

Take the route at your own pace. “You don’t have to be Danica Patrick to drive to work,” says League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke, “so you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to bike to work.”

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