Let me admit upfront that I don’t commute to work by bike. I walk. Upstairs. Telecommuting is one of the great ways we’re reducing traffic congestion, but this isn’t a story about working at home. I’m fascinated by the idea of the “park and pedal,” which is one way of getting more people on bikes. You don’t have to do the whole trip on two wheels, but every little bit helps.
As the author of a book, "Breaking Gridlock," on public transit, I learned the concept of “inter-modality.” You need a seamless transition from car to bike, car to train, bus to light rail. Some cities are just plain dumb about this — refusing to co-locate their facilities, or to even vaguely synchronize schedules to make transfers practical.
The average round-trip commute in America is 25 miles, the Department of Transportation says. It takes 50 total minutes daily, or eight days over the course of a year, and that’s a little far for most sedentary citizens to go with pedal power. The average Chinese person of 30 years ago would have thought nothing of it, but even they have rapidly motorized their cities. And they’ve motorized their bicycles, too: according to electric bike guru Ed Benjamin, something like 30 million ebikes were sold in China in 2011. The market for them is expected to grow to 130 million annually by 2025, but so far Americans have resisted the clarion call of ebikes — just 100,000 were sold here last year.
The “park to pedal” is a compromise that doesn’t require Iron Men or Iron Women. One problem is that, in the U.S., many light rail and inter-city trains don’t allow bicycles during the rush hour. My own Metro North forbids the practice. Montague, which makes folding bikes, puts itself forward as a solution since the bike gets collapsed into a nylon bag, with the front wheel removed and Velcro-strapped in place. That can go on any train.
One way to do this is drive halfway, park in a municipal lot (every city should have one) and then ride the rest of the way. Laurel Goldstein of Montague told me, “You don’t even need a bike rack — the folded bike will fit inside a Mini or even a Smart car. Our heaviest one is 31 pounds, and the lightest 24 pounds.”
It’s kind of weird that we ride stationary bikes at the gym, but not real ones, isn’t it? America leads the world in bike ownership, but we’re down at the bottom in actual usage. There is clear workout potential in that daily ride, plus if you ride the first 10 miles, you’ll save $400 a year. Your car won’t be parked downtown, but in some way station along the way that has lower parking rates. If you save $10 a day in parking, that’s $2,500 a year.
- Ride a simple bike — high-tech ones have a lot of mechanical problems — and clean it regularly. Make sure you're riding the bike that's right for you.
- Always carry a flat repair kit and leave a pair of shoes at the office.
- Carry all your clothes for the week on Monday (maybe drive on Monday if that makes it easier).
- Take small sizes and only pack essentials — you don’t really need to tote along three separate tire tubes.
- Check the weather nightly, and plan your route ahead of time.
Here are some other tips, via video and courtesy REI:
I decided to check in on Portland, Ore., because it rules when it comes to bicycle commuting. No other city comes close. I was awed when I saw the arrays of bikers crossing the Hawthorne Bridge — 7,400 a day? Really? Did you see the episode of "Portlandia" about the bicycle movers? They actually have them there. Portland is the number one city for trip data on bicycling. Rob Sadowsky, executive director of Oregon’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, told me that 5.5 percent of Portlanders bike to work, though maybe not every day. Cyclists have actual rights there, instead of getting indiscriminately mowed down on the streets by speeding cars.
“No one thing makes a great bicycling city,” Sadowsky told me. “We have an environment here that promotes and is excited about outdoor activity — that’s why Nike, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear are here. We also have some of the best situations for cyclists — bicycle lanes, bicycle parking, and creative solutions to complicated land-use issues. We have transit-oriented communities, with bicycle parking at the stations. It’s easy to ditch your bike in Portland — you can put them on bus bike racks, and on hooks in the TriMet light rail system. There are some limits, such as no tandem or longtail bikes.”
Sadowsky points out that bicyclists aren’t just an annoying interest group in Portland — they contribute $100 million annually to the economy. The city is a bicycle industry center, with frame builders, parts makers, apparel companies and helmet manufacturers. It’s also the headquarters of Alta Planning + Design, which manages large-scale bicycle sharing programs for other cities.
The alliance, which is big enough to have more than a dozen full-time employees, runs a “Bike Commute Challenge” for Portland businesses, with awards that not only pit companies against each other but, say, human resources against marketing. “The awards are pretty coveted,” Sadowsky said. “Some companies bleed to win, then do everything they can to get the award back if they lose.”
I pointed out that Portland is almost a fantasy of what a bicycle-friendly city can be, but Sadowsky came back and said, “It’s a lot easier in most places than it was 10 years ago. And it isn’t always easy in the tri-county area we cover, with includes a lot of agricultural and wine country areas.”
The most bicycle-ready cities are, according to Sadowsky and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance: Portland at the top, followed by Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York, Chicago (“some amazing things”), Philadelphia and Honolulu (“remarkable achievements”). Standout small cities are Davis, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; and San Diego, Calif. — which has a huge trail system and great weather.