- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It’s the morning rush, and breezing past the cars bunched up in Rock Creek Park or on 14th Street are the only commuters making good time — the cyclists.In Lycra or business suits and helmets, they look happy and fit, and they’ll get to the office long before the drivers do.

Why can’t everyone do the same?

Tomorrow everyone will have the chance. It’s Bike to Work Day in Washington, the culmination of Bike to Work Week and the highlight of National Bike Month, a program encouraged by the League of American Bicyclists and spearheaded here for the past 30 years by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).

WABA wants the public to know that bike commuting is clean, green and should be routine. And tomorrow it expects to see thousands of cyclists heading downtown, or from one suburb to another, in 22 convoys from 25 neighborhood “pit stops” in the District and suburbs.

“Last year we had 6,000 riders at 23 different locations. We expect even more this year who want to celebrate a clean and healthy form of transportation,” says WABA Executive Director Eric Gilliland.

Safety in numbers

It’s clearly a form of persuasion, and it has government and private support.

According to Jim Sebastian, coordinator of the D.C. Department of Transportation’s bicycle program, the purpose of Bike to Work Day is to “raise awareness” of bicycling as a viable form of commuting.

The Washington Council of Governments Commuter Connections Program has supported and advertised the event since 2001. One commercial supporter, Bike the Sites, is even offering commuters free bike rentals for the day.

And the “convoy” idea — the offer of travel in packs led by experienced bike commuters — is obviously aimed at neophytes, who may be unsure of routes or the best ways to negotiate rush-hour traffic.

Some convoys will depart from designated neighborhood meeting points. Others will leave from the pit stops, where newbies can learn the ropes.

“New bicyclists can get assistance at the pit stops about their biking concerns, learn about new routes to work, and even get a free tune-up for their bikes,” Mr. Sebastian says.

Between 7 and 9:30 a.m. each pit stop will offer breakfast, entertainment, speakers and the chance to win bicycle-related prizes. Some will feature live bands: Barrelhouse Brawl, a New Orleans jazz group, will play at the Arlington-Rosslyn pit stop at Rosslyn Gateway Park.

All convoys — except those traveling from suburb to suburb — will converge on Freedom Plaza at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.

Gridlock begone

What’s the attraction of cycling to work? Bicycle commuters say they have fun and save money, time and even the environment by pedaling to the office, but they also let slip a hint of glee at outsmarting cars and the people stuck in them.

Many pit stop organizers will host rush-hour races between drivers and cyclists — and everyone knows who wins those.

“We’ve done the contest, for example, on previous Bike to Work days, pitting a bicyclist starting in Bethesda using the Capital Crescent Trail to Georgetown, against a driver who takes a car from the same point in Bethesda straight down Wisconsin Avenue to Georgetown,” Mr. Sebastian says.

“Because the car can only go about 10 miles per hour in rush hour traffic, the bicyclist always wins.”

Of course, pleasure and personal satisfaction are always high on the list. Barbara Klieforth, a 40-something resident of Cottage City, just across Eastern Avenue from the District, rides her bike to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development downtown and says it’s not only pollution-free fun and good exercise, but a way to get to know neighborhoods.

“People wave to me along the way. They are very friendly and open to bicyclists,” Ms. Klieforth says.

‘Dooring’ and other adventures

Biking does have its perils. Most involve cars and pedestrians, and cycling commuters have to develop a sixth sense.

“You have to gain experience to be a bike commuter. There is a learning curve,” says Gail Tait-Nouri, a senior planning specialist with Montgomery County’s Department of Public Works and Transportation.

“Many cars do not notice bikes, so you cannot act as if you are invisible,” she says.

Ms. Tait-Nouri, whose job entails planning bike paths and promoting bicycle safety for commuters in Montgomery, recommends that beginning bicycle commuters take an on-road cycling course offered by the League of American Bicyclists and the recreational outfitter REI.

Mr. Sebastian and Mr. Gilliland, too, suggest that bicyclists new to commuting take a free class sponsored by the D.C. Department of Transportation and WABA, “Confident City Cycling,” held at various locations around Washington.

Nonetheless, even experienced cyclists like EPA staffer Anna Kelso say they sometimes tangle with motorists during a commute.

“I just got ‘doored’ yesterday when a passenger in a car unexpectedly opened a door into my lane,” says Ms. Kelso of a May 1 incident she says she reported to the Metropolitan Police Department.

The District’s Department of Transportation, which keeps statistics on bicycle-car and pedestrian-car crashes, reports that in 2003, the year for which data were most recently available, there were 229 collisions in the city involving bicycles, down from a high of 314 in 2000.

City intersections with the most bicycle-related collisions between 2000 and 2002 were 17th Street, Connecticut Avenue and K Street Northwest (with eight) and 14th and L streets Northwest (with six).

The data do not break out cars and pedestrians, but a summary of DOT findings from 2000 to 2002 shows that 96 percent of bicycle collisions involved some type of motor vehicle.

Staying safe

The take-home message is: Crashes happen, and most experienced cyclists go to extra lengths to avoid them and protect themselves.

Marcus Smith, a 58-year-old Bethesda resident who has commuted by bike for more than 10 years and who bikes between his home and job at United Communications Group in Rockville, says he routinely wears a helmet and reflective clothing, and has mounted a full set of bike lights on his bicycle for night riding.

“Good reflective gear can make you more visible as a biker, but the number one thing I see bicyclists not doing is wearing helmets,” he says.

In Montgomery County, helmets are required for teens and children under 18 but not for adults, says Ms. Tait-Nouri.

Because he bikes a lot on mixed-use trails, Mr. Smith has also installed a 105-decibel siren on his bike in addition to a bell. He will use the siren when he approaches a pedestrian from behind who is wearing earphones or a cell phone in the ear, and is oblivious to the sound of his bicycle bell or his calls of “on your left.”

Mr. Gilliland of WABA suggests: Ride to make yourself very visible in your lane to approaching motorists; take care at intersections, where most crashes occur; ride away from the “door zone”; and wear a helmet plus goggles to protect your eyesight from road debris that might fly out from uncovered trucks or car wheels.

Shower time

The one thing biking commuters don’t want to do is show up disheveled at the office. Many seek showers or a change of clothes before they start their working day.

To help them, some employers have provided bike lockers, showers and changing rooms, says Paul DeMaio, bicycle promotion manager of Arlington County’s Division of Transportation.

“There is a big interest in bicycling to work in Arlington County, and we try to build in two to three showers and rows of individual lockers in our county buildings, such as the Arlington Court House,” Mr. DeMaio says.

In Arlington County, 3 percent of commuters use their bikes to get to work, an average higher than the number in most communities, he says.

EPA’s Ronald Reagan building on 14th Street Northwest also has a large, secure combination bike room/locker room with showers and separate changing areas for male and female staffers. Accessible from the building’s garage, it’s open to EPA employees and other agency staffers who have been given a special pass code to enter the room.

Ms. Klieforth and Ms. Kelso say the bike room features areas to hang up work clothing on hangers, a locker with bike tools for quick tune-ups and other bike repairs, 100 lockers and enough storage space to lock up 110 bikes.

But despite the EPA’s environmental mission, agency staffers “had to push a little,” Ms. Klieforth says, to get building owners to designate a room as a bicycle lock-up and shower facility.

The great unwashed

Are lockers and showers for bike-commuting staff a frill? Mr. Gilliland says too many employers see them that way.

“Some employers are reluctant to spend the money to create bicycle rooms to secure bikes, or changing and showering facilities for their workers, or to supply monetary commuter benefits for their bike-commuting employees,” he says.

The tax structure plays a role. The IRS gives tax breaks to employers who subsidize employees’ use of public transportation to get to work, and to those who provide free parking for their staffs.

But employers get no tax breaks for being bike-friendly.

Some in Congress want to change that. “Bike commuter” bills introduced in both the Senate and the House in March simply add the word “bicycles” to the definition of the types of transportation eligible for employer tax benefits.

Meanwhile, bike commuters whose employers don’t provide showers often join a gym with showers near the office. If they can’t find a gym they will carry quick changes of clothing rolled up in their bicycle saddle bags, or will bring in a week’s worth of business dress and leave it in the office from Monday to Friday.

Still others do Metro. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority lets cyclists bring bicycles — either regular bikes or the new folding bikes — aboard its trains during non-peak hours, and offers free bike racks and rental lockers at most of its stations for those who combine a Metro ride with a short bicycle commute.

All Metrobuses, too, now sport bike racks on the front of each bus that may be used free. The same is true of all Ride-On buses in Montgomery County and ART buses in Arlington County.

Public incentives

Transportation officials all around the area, in fact, seem to have decided that bike commuters’ role in reducing road congestion and improving air quality makes the cyclists worthy of accommodation.

For example, the D.C. Department of Transportation has provided bike racks at “hundreds” of offices, stores and libraries around town so bicyclists can safely secure their wheels with U-locks or bike chains, Mr. Sebastian says.

The DOT has also painted bicycle lanes along popular bike commuting corridors. It has mapped out safer bicycle routes on quiet side streets that are “signed” with directions and mileage.

It is working to complete the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a bike path that will eventually run alongside Metro’s Red Line from Fort Totten to Union Station. And it broke ground May 7 on an Anacostia River hiker-biker trail that will take bicyclists from Bladensburg to the Navy Yard in Northeast.

Similar efforts are evident outside the District. Arlington County has built 38 miles of bike trails and 25 miles of bike lanes, Mr. DeMaio says. Montgomery County, which recently completed pedestrian-biker bridges over Interstates 70 and 495 to link bike paths in Bethesda to Rockville, has several new bike paths on the drawing board, according to Ms. Tait-Nouri.

So the worthies promoting Bike to Work Day may be on the right track. That means tomorrow’s word to drivers is: Watch your doors.

WHAT: Washington Bike to Work Day

WHEN: 6:30-9 a.m. May 18

WHERE: Convoys and individual cyclists leave from designated neighborhood points or from pit stops and ride to Freedom Plaza, 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. On-line registration required for pit stops.

INFORMATION: www.waba.org

Cycling groups help get you rolling

The hearties behind tomorrow’s Bike to Work Day clearly hope its spirit carries beyond one day. For help tomorrow and for more information on bike commuting, check out these resources:

Cycling groups

• League of American Bicyclists: 1612 K St. NW. National organization for cyclists and national sponsor of Bike to Work month. Bike events, safety classes, safer community bike programs. Local bike chapters listed. 202/822-1333 or bikeleague.org.

• Washington Area Bicyclist Association: 1803 Connecticut Ave. NW. Complete information on local Bike to Work Day, bike maps and trails in the District, new-cyclist mentoring, bike safety classes, advocates for better laws for bike commuters. 202/518-0524 or waba.org.


• Arlington County Bikeways Program: 2100 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. Easy-to-use Web site with links to bicycling resources in Arlington and the District. Bike maps, suggested routes from Arlington into the District, information on bike-to-bus and bike-to-rail programs. 703/228-3633 or bikearlington.com.

• D.C. Department of Transportation Bicycle Program: 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Information on D.C. bicycle trails and the trails’ master plan, bicycle routes, locations of bicycle racks and how to order new ones in front of your office building, bicycle laws and regulations in the District. 202/671-0681 or ddot.dc.gov; go to “What can we help you find?” and click on “Transportation Planning — Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs.”

• Montgomery County Bicycle Action Group: Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation, 101 Monroe St., Rockville. Works with citizens and bicyclists on new bike trails and routes. Web site shows bike routes recently completed and new-trail priority list. Call Gail Tait-Nouri, senior planning specialist, bike trails, at 240/777-7243 or see montgomery countymd.gov; click on “Transportation,” then “DPWT” then “Sidewalks and Bikeways” in the color wheel.

• Washington Council of Governments: Commuter Connections Web site. Riding in traffic safely, rider and bike outfitting for commuting, bike classes, routes. See mwcog.org/commuter/Bdy-bike.html.

• Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: 8405 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. All Metro buses have free bike carriers. Bicycles allowed on Metro trains during non-peak hours: all day on weekends and holidays except July 4, and on work weekdays before 7 a.m., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and after 7 p.m. Bike lockers at stations $70 a year plus $10 key deposit. 202/962-1116 or wmata.com/ riding/bike.

Commercial support

• Bike the Sites: Old Post Office Pavilion, rear plaza, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Bike tours around town for a fee. Offering free bikes for Bike to Work Day: Pick up today, May 17, between 5 and 7 p.m. at two locations — behind the Old Post Office Pavilion or in Rosslyn at the corner of 19th and Moore streets — and return tomorrow from 8 to 10 a.m. 202/842-BIKE, bikethesites.com or waba.com.

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