Gas is expensive, and we’re getting fatter. Sounds like we should get out of our cars and onto our bicycles, saving money and slimming waistlines in one fell swoop, doesn’t it?
Absolutely, area bicycle commuters say. It’s estimated that a bit more than 1 percent of Washington’s population — about 5,000 people — commute by bicycle.
“There is always a way to commute by bicycle,” says Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, WABA, “and through our mentoring program, we’ll help you find the best, safest route from your house to your job.”
It’s easy for Mr. Gilliland to say that if there’s a bicycle-commuting will, there’s a bicycle-commuting way.
“It’s true, mine is a very short commute,” he admits, adding that he rides about one mile from his home in the U Street NW area to his office on Connecticut Avenue.
So, let’s talk some real distances. Say you live in Takoma Park and work in Landover, as Paul d’Eustachio does.
“It’s about 15 miles each way, and it takes me about 50 minutes,” says Mr. d’Eustachio, an accountant who bicycles the 30-mile round trip up to four times a week, rain or shine. The only time he doesn’t ride is when the temperature sinks below freezing.
It’s just shy of 8 on a recent morning, and Mr. d’Eustachio, a wiry father of three in his mid-50s who also is the president of WABA, is already at his office, getting ready to bring his bike upstairs and change out of his shorts and T-shirt.
The Cannondale T2000 that Mr. d’Eustachio rides is a touring bike, meaning it’s lighter than a mountain bike and sturdier than a racing bike. Many bike commuters favor this type of bicycle and outfit it with dropped handlebars. Regular handlebars require the cyclist to sit upright, which is too tiring, many bike commuters say. The tires are lined with Teflon to prevent small punctures.
Mr. d’Eustachio uses an access card to get into his office, and as he rolls the bike in, he says: “I am very fortunate about having somewhere to keep my bicycle during the day. Some offices don’t provide any kind of bicycle parking.” He has a bike stand in his office.
Another possible obstacle for bicycle commuters is clothing. Mr. d’Eustachio says he brings clean clothes to his office by car or Metro once a week. He usually wears a polo shirt and dress pants, which he acknowledges is easier than having to wear a suit.
Evelyn Egizi, 48, has it even better. She wears scrubs at her job as a hospital administrator at the Washington Hospital Center, and she has access to at-work showers.
“I’d feel pretty guilty if I didn’t commute like this,” Ms. Egizi says. “I’m very fortunate.”
Her 10-mile commute takes her from a residential area in Silver Spring through Rock Creek Park, then finally through the Petworth neighborhood in Northwest, where residents call her the “bike lady.”
“People have asked me do I ever feel threatened going through the ‘hood’? I don’t,” Ms. Egizi says. “I feel much more threatened by bad drivers. … All drivers should be bicyclists at some point, and they’d become much better drivers.”
She says drivers seldom respect her right as a cyclist to the entire lane if she’s going the minimum speed of 15 mph. Drivers sometimes honk or nearly sideswipe her to get past.
“I’d get a lot more respect if I were a farm tractor going 15 miles an hour,” she says. Recently a driver who nearly knocked her over to pass her was stopped at a nearby red light. Ms. Egizi rode up to the driver to have some words.
“I said, ‘Was it worth it, to almost kill me?’” she says. “She didn’t say anything, just stared,” she says about the driver.
Safety is a big issue and probably the No. 1 reason many would-be bicycle commuters never take that first pedal, Mr. Gilliland says.
“If we’re going to get people out of their cars and onto bikes, we need more on-road facilities like bike lanes,” he says. “People have to feel safe.”
A bike lane is generally about 5 feet wide and part of the road on which cars travel. A trail generally is about 10 feet wide and is a road unto itself.
Things are improving on the facilities side, says Jim Sebastian, manager for bicycle, pedestrian and transportation demand management programs at the District Department of Transportation.
“We hope to install up to 50 miles [of bicycle lanes] in the next few years,” says Mr. Sebastian, who also is a bicycle commuter, logging about 10 miles a day. Twenty miles of lanes have been installed in the past few years, he says. The trail network also is increasing. All surrounding jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties, have similar plans, he says.
Then there is the “time cost.” Both Ms. Egizi and Mr. d’Eustachio say it takes longer to commute by bike than to drive or take Metro — but at the same time, they don’t need to spend any time at the gym to fit in some daily exercise.
“It’s a great workout, and it’s low-impact on your knees,” says Mr. d’Eustachio, who at 6 feet tall and 150 pounds is about the size as he was in his 20s.
So, let’s look at those riding-for-fitness numbers. A moderate rider, someone not quite as speedy as Mr. d’Eustachio, might bicycle 10 miles an hour. Say that person weighs 175 pounds. In one hour, that person would burn about 525 calories, says Annemarie Francis, a licensed athletic trainer at Inova Sports Medicine in Fairfax. If the round-trip commute is 20 miles, double that number, and you get 1,050 calories, which can make a big difference in weight management and overall health, she says.
“I think I would be 300 pounds if I didn’t bicycle to work,” says Mr. d’Eustachio, who adds that his wife is a wonderful cook.
It’s not just about exercise, though. It’s also a cost-saver, says Jim Nagle, 49, who commutes from Reston to Bethesda, where he works at the National Institutes of Health. The commute is 23 miles one way and takes him up to 90 minutes. His route has him on bike trails, sidewalks (which is allowed almost everywhere except in downtown Washington), bike lanes and roads without bike lanes.
“I think it turns out being about a 20 percent savings on commuting costs a year, which is pretty good,” says Mr. Nagle, who has done the bicycle commute about two times a week for about 10 years.
Many bicycle commuters also cite the environmentally friendly aspect of bicycling as a reason for using it as a mode of commuting.
“I believe an environmentalist starts at home,” Mr. Nagle says.
This is all well and good, but the barriers of safety, parking, shower facilities, logistics, clothing choices, time, distance and physical demand (not everyone is ready to ride 20 to 30 miles a day) still remain.
“I know, but if you can break down one or two, maybe that’s enough to make bicycle commuting an option,” Mr. Sebastian says. The DDOT’s goal is that by 2025, about 5 percent, compared to the current 1 percent, of Washington’s population will commute by bicycle.
“This area is in many ways ideal for bicycle commuting,” Mr. Gilliland says. “We have gentle topography and a mild climate.”
He cites Denmark, where about 30 percent of residents commute by bicycle, as a model. Imagine waking up one day and seeing 30 percent of the region’s population riding bicycles. Yeah, not very likely. Americans love their cars — always have and always will, right?
“Yes, cars are definitely part of a cultural, institutional mind-set,” Mr. d’Eustachio says, “but I still believe that if you build them — as in bicycle lanes and trails — they will come.”