More commuters riding bicycles to work
Sunday, October 16, 2005
By Gabrielle Banks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Shawn Boylan, who works at William Green Associates Downtown, rides his bike to and from home in Shaler to save on parking and gasoline rates.
Bicycle stores have been getting a new type of customer recently: former car commuters.
They've wiped the cobwebs from their dusty 10-speeds and they come in looking for accessories and a tuneup. They wander the aisles and marvel at how far bikes have come since the classic Schwinn Cruiser.
The spike in gasoline prices this summer pushed some of these born-again cyclists over the edge, and many say they are unlikely to revert to driving anytime soon.
"To take a 4,000-pound piece of metal with you everywhere you go doesn't make a lot of sense," said Fred Clements, head of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. "When it hits people's wallets, they notice."
Bike suppliers are racing to keep up with the demand. By August, year-to-date bicycle shipments had risen 19.5 percent from the same period in 2004, according to the National Bike Suppliers Association.
At the bike-industry trade show in Las Vegas last month, the showroom floor displays emphasized the practical side of the sport -- racks, saddlebags, lights, locks and cold-weather gear, Mr. Clements said. Manufacturers are beginning to produce more bikes with these features built in.
Sales have nearly doubled this year at Pittsburgh Pro Bikes in Squirrel Hill. Store owner David Blank said he'd added about 2,000 customers to his database in the past two months.
Gatto Cycling and Fitness Shop in Point Breeze has seen a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in customers outfitting their old bikes or their recreational bikes for utilitarian purposes, manager Mike Taljan said.
Motorists may see this as whimsy, but a number of cyclists express true devotion.
When Shawn Boylan started riding from Shaler to his job Downtown about a year ago, his co-workers found it humorous when he rolled into the office each morning in bike shorts and a T-shirt. He was doing it for exercise, and it didn't take him any longer to get to work when he factored in the walk to Gateway Center from the lot where he parked his car on the North Shore.
Now the 28-year-old accountant commutes exclusively on his 18-speed mountain bike to help balance the family checkbook.
"It became no longer a choice. I realized I have to. Between transportation costs, health insurance and general utility costs, everything was going up around us except our salaries," he said.
His co-workers at the public relations firm William J. Green and Associates still crack jokes, but they have come to see the logic of bicycle commuting.
For some, the decision to pedal also is a political statement about lifestyle.
When Dr. Erin Ochoa, a transplant pathologist at UPMC, moved here from the Bronx, N.Y., with her husband and her 6- and 8-year-old daughters, they were determined to find a way to live in Pittsburgh without a car.
People told her: "You can't be a doctor and not have a car. You can't have children and not have a car."
This did not deter her, as she had gotten along fine in New York City without one.
Dr. Ochoa, 36, went online early in the summer and bought a couple of mountain bikes. She and her husband, Michael, 38, now shop for groceries with big backpacks.
Their daughters have bikes, and when the family goes from their home in Oakland across town, they take the bus. She said they rented a studio apartment for a month in Paris this summer with the money they would have spent buying and maintaining a car.
Veteran cyclists such as Jessi Berkelhammer, 28, of Friendship, have noticed more diversity on the roads.
"It's not just the young, hip demographic" who's on bikes, said Ms. Berkelhammer, a regular participant in Pittsburgh's monthly Critical Mass ride, part of a national movement to promote bike awareness.
She has seen people who appear to be in their 50s and 60s pedaling up the hills in some city neighborhoods, and she knows working parents who have never owned bikes getting them for their commutes.
So many new cyclists raise questions about bike etiquette, such as proper hand signals and whether to ride on the sidewalk, that Bike Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that encourages cycling, is planning a commuter bike training course with the Better World Club, a national automobile club offering roadside assistance to cyclists.
Last month, according to figures from the Port Authority of Allegheny County, bus and trolley ridership rose 5.6 percent over September 2004 figures.
Some of that increase may be cyclists -- buses on eight city routes have carry-along bike racks, as does the T.
"High energy costs could make the bicycle, one of the oldest mechanical inventions known to man, become a major mode of transportation in the inner city and suburbs," said Jesse Forquer, who is on the Montour Trail board.
Human energy is more easily renewable than gasoline, he said, and it "is a very pleasurable thing for some, because it simply involves eating."
(Gabrielle Banks can be reached at email@example.com