Thousands trade four wheels for two during Bike to Work Month

Rising gas prices, crowded buses, concern for the environment, and the desire to squeeze in a workout are motivating more people to commute by bike. Here's what you need to know if you're thinking about joining them.
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Commuters on the Sammamish Bike Trail. (Bill Thorness)

Rising gas prices, crowded buses, concern for the environment, and the desire to squeeze in a workout are motivating more people to commute by bike. Here's what you need to know if you're thinking about joining them.

Craig Skipton traverses the concrete walkways of Ballard's Hiram Chittenden Locks nearly every working day, with bicycle in tow. The link to Magnolia proves convenient for the bike commuter on his way downtown, as he joins thousands of people using pedal power to get to work.

If it's a nice day, engineering consultant Ben Kerbaugh will hop on his bike in Northeast Seattle and head to his Redmond office at Medtronic, a 17.5-mile ride that's largely on the Burke-Gilman and Sammamish River trails. "It sure beats sitting in traffic," he says.

In May, many more will give the two-wheeled commute a try, cajoled by their office mates to try it during "National Bike Month," a promotion by the League of American Bicyclists. The event swells daily bike commuting from an estimated 6,000 in winter to 13,000 people in summer locally, according to Chris Cameron, director of bicycle commuting for Cascade Bicycle Club. Municipalities and organizations like Cascade promote the event, which includes a month-long "bike to work challenge" that has 11,000 riders on 800 corporate teams, and Bike to Work Day on Friday, May 16, where morning commuters — 19,000 of them last year — are greeted by free coffee and energy bars on popular routes.

Cyclists save money, pollute less, and find other reasons to commute by bike.

"It's the combination of the cost of gas, convenience, and the ease of using a bike for a journey between one and six miles, which is the ideal length of a bike commute," says Gordon Black, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (BAW). On his commute from Bainbridge Island, he's seen the number of ferry cyclists increase from a dozen in 1993 to "79 riders on the 5:30 boat on a wet February day" recently, and more than 100 in summer.

"Exercise is definitely part of it" for Skipton, who's training for a marathon and says the biking "keeps my workout going." A landscape architect with Mithun, his 7.5-mile ride takes 30 minutes inbound to offices on the central waterfront, but 40 back to Ballard because of the hills. "It's faster to get to work, and less frustrating" than driving or riding the bus, he says. "It's amazing, the contrast of sitting on the bus crushed next to someone rather than cruising along."

"You arrive at work awake and arrive at home relaxed," says Kerbaugh. "It kind of blows the stress off you."

If you're not fortunate enough to work and live adjacent to a major trail, the first hurdle is often choosing a route. To find a safe ride that avoids really big climbs or the most dangerous traffic, consult municipal bike maps that chart off-street trails and streets commonly used for biking.

Cascade offers lunchtime bike commute seminars and group classes in downtown Seattle, and BAW has a "Bike Buddy" program that pairs mentors with new commuters.

Seattle's Bicycle Master Plan, enacted last year, means that the city is adding more bike lanes, signage, and even a few new trails that promise routing help. Last year, the city opened the Chief Sealth Trail, which bisects Beacon Hill and will connect with the light-rail line. Shoreline recently finished linking its sections of the Interurban Trail, and Issaquah just opened the Highpoint Regional Trail Connector.

Once at the office, changing from road racer to desk jockey presents more challenges. The most basic requirement is a shower and a locker to store work clothes and hang up the cleats. Secure, dry bike storage is also a must. Such amenities are being designed into new office buildings and touted by human resource recruiters. BAW suggests additional perks to make biking more attractive:

  • offer loaner cars for daytime meetings,
  • provide a bike lease or purchase program, and
  • offer to pick up cycling employees stranded by a breakdown.

In recent years, bicycle lockers have proliferated at transit centers and park-and-rides, but Black says such efforts are not keeping up with demand. "The popularity of bicycling is ahead of the government's response to the need to make improvements for bicycling," he says. BAW has a waiting list for lockers in the program it administers for King County.

Keeping upright between the cars is also a prime concern, as most bike commutes include some road riding in traffic. Skipton sticks to side roads in Ballard and a trail from Interbay to downtown, but a short stretch of riding on Alaskan Way proves perilous. "I actually had to call the police a couple of days ago" and report a reckless driver after a scary near-miss, he says. Last year, he slammed into the back window of a car that cut him off and made a right turn, and the driver simply yelled "You all right?" out his window as he drove away. But even riding the trails can be dangerous. Kerbaugh collided head-on with another cyclist in a pre-dawn commute that left him with a broken collarbone and other injuries that requires surgery and four months to heal. "I've noticed I'm more careful on the trail now," he says. "It's more crowded, there are more people who aren't paying attention, and more people in the dark with no lights."

Primary safety advice:

  • Stay alert and ride defensively. Assume that drivers don't see you and scan ahead for potholes and traffic problems.
  • Enhance visibility by wearing bright clothes and using front and rear lights.
  • Become traffic, rather than an accessory. When cars are turning right, move to the middle of the lane.
  • Avoid the most challenging route segments by combining mass transit with your ride.
  • Stow the iPod. Even at a low volume, you'll miss important auditory cues and be less attentive.
  • Wear a helmet. It's the law in many places, including King County, and it increases your chance of surviving a crash.

Road dangers, sweaty climbs, or even crowded bike trails might conspire to keep you off the bike, but consider the offsets: "Peace and quiet," says Kerbaugh.

"There's a lot of wildlife at the Locks," Skipton says. "I've been watching kingfishers catch fish lately."


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