Breaking Away from Rush Hour

Bike commuting is healthy -- and dirt-cheap

The slower the traffic is on his commute to and from Akron, Ohio, the happier Arthur Wickersham is. That's because the 60-year-old chief executive of Community Support Services, a nonprofit mental health organization, is not stuck in the gridlock: He's pedaling by it on his bicycle. Wickersham rides 10 to 12 miles each way, depending on his route, taking him about 45 minutes. Often, he arrives home in Stow, Ohio, at the same time as car-driving staffers who live in his neighborhood. "Each day on the bicycle is an adventure," Wickersham says. "And it's healthy and nonpolluting to boot."

I share Wickersham's joy. Over the past decade, I've bicycled more than 30,000 miles on my 10-mile trip to and from work in Washington, often passing the stalled traffic on I-66 as I zip along on a nearby bike path. More than 500,000 Americans commute this way, according to U.S. census data. In some cities, such as Davis, Calif., the number tops 20%.

Still, "those are pretty pathetic numbers for a nation that should be smarter and wiser," says Andy Clarke, director of state and local advocacy for the League of American Bicyclists. Coaxing more Americans into traveling by bike could ameliorate a host of ills -- from gridlock and air pollution to the growing epidemic of obesity.

One big objection is that bike commuting eats up too much time. Not so. "It doesn't take much longer on the bike than it would to drive," says Doug Walker, 52, CEO of WRQ, a software company in Seattle, who racks up nearly 4,000 miles a year riding to and from work. He started bike commuting 13 years ago to stay in shape. "I just fall out of bed, eat something, ride to work, then shower and shave at the office," says Walker. "It's a huge time-saver."

I've discovered plenty of other pluses. Next to the cost of driving (parking alone is $220 a month in my building, and car costs would top $120 per month) or public transportation ($76 per month on the Metro subway system), my commute is dirt-cheap. There really are no costs, save for a tube ($4) or tire ($15 to $30) every six months or so, once you've got the bike and a few hundred dollars' worth of gear.

Your community benefits, too, from having fewer cars on the road. That's why there's a strong push in Congress this year to add more bike-friendly measures to a major funding bill that would reauthorize the current highway law. The measures would boost funding for bike routes and offer subsidies to bike commuters.

You can spend for a fancy bike, but just about any one will do. I ride a trusty 28-year-old Raleigh 10-speed from my college days. Software CEO Walker uses an expensive mountain bike to get to work -- then for appointments in town, hops on a cheaper city model that doesn't make him nervous when he parks it on the street. Veterinary surgeon David Nelson, 51, and his wife Katherine get to their jobs at Texas A&M University together on a tandem.

SAFETY FIRST. Whatever steed you choose, your commute will be safer and easier if you also have these essentials and accessories: helmet; eyeglass- or helmet-mounted mirror for seeing what's coming from behind: sturdy Kevlar-belted tires to minimize flats (plus pump, tire irons, and spare tube); fenders and bright-colored waterproof vest or jacket to keep you cleaner, drier, and more visible in the rain; headlight and flashing taillight for evenings; and a rack and panniers to carry clothes, papers, and laptop. You should read John Forester's classic book, Effective Cycling, to learn how to safely cope with traffic. For instance, always assume that drivers can't see you. So you need to wear colorful clothes and outfit yourself with plenty of reflectors and lights. Obey the same rules as any other vehicle on the road. Take up an entire lane when necessary and don't weave in and out of traffic.

The question every bike commuter hears is: Don't you get sweaty? Well, yes. For many commuters, shower facilities at work or a nearby health club are essential. But it's possible to do without. During the fall, winter, and spring, I simply shed layers before getting hot. In the summer, I rely on towels and clean clothes that I bring with me in my panniers.

Pedaling to work takes a bit of planning. Congressional Research Service analyst Baird Webel, 34, has so many of his suits in his office that "when I have a formal engagement on the weekend, I have to think about how to get clothes home," he says. It also helps to have good transportation alternatives for getting home or around town during the day. I wimp out when it snows, shifting to the Metro. Others drive in on Monday morning and leave their cars at the office until Friday evening. Some areas, such as metropolitan Washington, offer a dispatching service cyclists can call in an emergency for free rides home. And some employees are lucky enough to have a boss like WRQ's Walker, who bought a small car for his company's bike commuters to use for errands or appointments.

For those of us who hop on our bikes each day, the rewards far outweigh the hassles. And we feel like we're doing a little something for the planet.

By John Carey

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