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Number of people biking to work up, but still rare

Dayton Daily News: Number of people biking to work up, but still rare

By Ken McCall, Staff Writer
Updated 2:35 AM Sunday, May 16, 2010

Every weekday morning, Mike Williams checks the weather as he gets ready for his commute from Huber Heights to his job in downtown Dayton.

It’s not really clear why, though. The weather hardly ever interferes with his bike commuting. He’s missed only four days riding to work this year and has already logged close to 2,700 miles. Last year, the 60-year-old marketing manager for Gosiger Inc., logged 7,103 miles biking to work.

Williams is part of a growing trend of people who are trading their cars for bikes to get to work — at least part of the time. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2008 close to 800,000 people nationwide used the bicycle as a primary means of transportation to work. That was an increase of 61 percent, or almost 300,000 people since 2000.

Cycling has been the fastest-growing mode of commuting this decade other than riding motorcycles, which has more than doubled, according to the census data. Still, bicycling to work is relatively rare, at about 0.5 percent of total commuting.

Bicycle advocates point out that the Census Bureau understates the number of bike commuting because cyclists aren’t counted unless they ride more than half the time.

One local indicator: The number of miles logged by bike commuters in the annual contest between the Dayton and Cincinnati cycling clubs has more than doubled since 2002 to almost 165,000 last year.

(Full disclosure: This reporter logged 1,100 miles to the Dayton club’s total, but did not ride enough to be considered a bike commuter by the Census Bureau.)

Williams, who hopes to defend his title this year as the Dayton Cycling Club’s top bike commuter, said he decided to try bike riding in 2005 when gas prices spiked.

“It was one little man’s protest against the gas prices,” he said. “I had this big clunky bike that weighed about 50 pounds and I rode it to work. I had to ride home up this little hill, and it was a gut-wrencher then. But by the second day I was thinking, ‘You know, this feels pretty good.’”

When the weather’s bad, Williams uses the most direct route — 11 miles on surface streets. But when it’s nice, he’ll take scenic detours: either a 25-mile route up the Great Miami Recreation Trail, or a 17-miler on country roads to Wright State and then into Dayton.

“Our bike trails are spectacular, really,” he said.

Still, a lot of his riding is on surface streets, and Williams said learning to ride with traffic is essential. That’s a problem for many. Numerous surveys have shown that people want to ride and walk more, but are concerned about traffic danger and other barriers.

But advocates say the danger to riding in traffic is exaggerated.

In 2008, for example, 716 bicyclists were killed in traffic crashes, about 2 percent of all traffic deaths, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That year, six times more pedestrians were killed in crashes (4,328), seven times more motorcyclists (5,290) and 37 times more motor vehicle occupants (26,689).

Dan Carrigan, a bike commuter who lives in Yellow Springs and has taught numerous classes on how to ride your bike in traffic, says roads aren’t dangerous for cyclists — if they know what they’re doing. Know the traffic laws, he said, watch for motorists and be visible so they can see you.

A study of bike-car crashes in Orlando, Fla., found close to two thirds of them involved an unsafe choice on the part of the bicyclist. Only 8 percent of the almost 885 crashes studied by the local planning organization Metropolitan Orlando involved sober cyclists who were traveling on the roadway and obeying the rules of the road.

The largest factor: 45 percent of all crashes involved cyclists riding the wrong way (against the flow of traffic) on either the street or sidewalk. Another 25 percent were not following other rules of the road, 12 percent were riding on sidewalks with the flow of traffic and 6 percent were riding drunk.

People often say what they fear most is being hit from behind by a motorist, but the Orlando study found that only 1.7 percent of all crashes were of that type.

Most crashes involve intersections, Carrigan and other cycling instructors say. Chris Quint, a Long Beach, Calif.-based cycling advocate and instructor, has created the popular “Cyclist’s Eye View” video series (available on Youtube) on how to negotiate intersections. If bike riders are visible and behaving in a predictable way, motorists can see them and make their way around them, Quint said.

Mike Williams could have used one of those emergency maneuvers last August when he was hit by a car one morning coming down Third Street.

He was involved in the most common car-bike crash, a motorist making a left turn into the path of an oncoming cyclist. Williams was tossed from the bike but unhurt.

The experience hardly stopped him from biking. For his 60th birthday he bought a new Bottecchia road bike and logged 703 miles in April alone. He festoons himself with lights — flashing red and steady white — and wears a rear view mirror, which attaches to his glasses. He constantly watches traffic, front and back.

“You have to take all the responsibility for your safety,” he said.

Williams, who says he was overweight and had high blood pressure before he began cycling. Now his blood pressure is normal and he’s lost close to 80 pounds. At 5 feet, 11 inches tall, he weighs in at a lean 155.

“I just feel good all the time,” Williams said. “I get to work, I’m energized and ready to go. I get home, I’m relaxed and civilized around my wife. It really adds a lot to life.”