Schenectady County

More commuters turn to bikes

Last spring, Saratoga Springs resident Doug Haller got his old mountain bike out of the shed and dus
Doug Haller of Saratoga Springs crosses Maxon Road Extension on the bicycle path in Schenectady on Friday while commuting home.
Doug Haller of Saratoga Springs crosses Maxon Road Extension on the bicycle path in Schenectady on Friday while commuting home.

Last spring, Saratoga Springs resident Doug Haller got his old mountain bike out of the shed and dusted it off.

Haller, 53, had long been interested in commuting to work by bus, but the connections didn’t quite work. Then he learned that every CDTA bus is now equipped with a bike rack and decided to combine riding the bus with biking.

In the mornings, Haller bikes to a bus stop about a mile from his house, loads his bike onto the bus rack and rides 21 miles into downtown Schenectady. Then he bikes another four miles to Rotterdam Industrial Park, where he works at the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Schenectady office. Once a week, he rides the entire distance. The total commute is 48 miles, round-trip.

“It’s been pretty successful,” said Haller, who estimates he’s spared his car about 2,000 miles of wear and tear since he began biking and busing to work.

Haller isn’t alone.

Bike shops and biking advocates report that the use of bikes for practical purposes — running errands, commuting — has soared in the past six months, largely as a result of $4-a-gallon gas. They believe that bike use in the Capital Region is reaching its tipping point — the moment when it moves from being a fringe activity to a more mainstream mode of transportation.

“More people are riding bikes than ever have,” said Ian Klepetar, who founded the Saratoga Healthy Transportation Network in 2005 to promote bicycling as an alternative to driving and pushed the city to install bike racks downtown. “People are riding for recreation, but there are also people who are taking their old Schwinns out and using them for utilitarian purposes. They’re realizing they don’t have the extra income to throw down on $4.50 gas each week. People who wouldn’t even think of the bike as a transportation option before are considering it.”

Albany resident Ian White, 30, started commuting to his job in Troy this spring.

“It was something I’ve always wanted to do,” said White, a geologist who is waiting for a broken collar bone to heal before resuming his bike commuting routine. The collar bone was broken in a mountain biking accident, not on his daily commute. “I live close enough to work so that I can ride my bike. It wasn’t gas prices that got me doing it, because I’ve always been a biker.” Riding in traffic took some getting used to, but “it really wasn’t too bad.”

White’s commute is 26 miles, round-trip, and takes about 50 minutes each way. When he drives to work, it takes about 25 minutes, and he doesn’t get any exercise. “Now I’m able to get exercise in without having to spend that extra time,” he said. “Before, I’d get home from work and ride for an hour and a half.”

“Biking starts my day off and ends my day on the right foot,” White said.

soaring Sales

For the bike industry, it’s been a very good year.

Heather Mason, a manager at Plaine and Son, a bike and ski shop in Schenectady, estimated that sales are up between 30 to 40 percent when compared with 2007. “We’ve seen more people coming in and requesting bikes for a utilitarian purpose,” she said. “People are buying more baskets, more bags, more racks.”

“The bike industry went crazy with the gas prices,” said Jeff Pease, the night manager at Freeman’s Bridge Sports in Scotia. More people are commuting, but more people are also biking for recreation instead of driving around in RVs or boating, he said. “We’re getting a lot of new people and a lot of old people,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of people who used to bike and are getting back into it.”

In 2000, the Capital District Transportation Authority launched a pilot program, “Catch a Bikeable Bus,” that highlighted the fact that 58 bike racks had been installed on 10 key routes on buses that operate in downtowns, colleges and universities and near bike paths. Two years ago, CDTA announced that all of its 200-plus regular buses were equipped with bicycle racks.

So far, bike rack use in 2008 is on track to more than double bike rack use for 2007, according to CDTA. Between April and June of this year, bike racks on CDTA buses carried 8,856 bikes; in 2007, during the same period of time, bike racks carried 4,310 bikes. Unsurprisingly, the numbers dropped during the winter. In January, the racks transported just 906 bikes.

Every city in the U.S. that tracks bike usage is reporting that ridership has increased substantially, according to the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group in Washington. In Denver, yearly events held to promote biking to work have typically drawn about 15,000 people; this year, 25,000 attended, including 11,000 first-time participants. In Broward County, Florida, bike rack use on buses has averaged between 30,000 to 35,000 a month, but in May, 68,000 bikes were transported by bus, according to Elizabeth Kiker, the group’s director of communications.

People are beginning to recognize that high gas prices are here to stay, Kiker said. “Before, people expected prices to go down and kept driving,” she said. “Now they’re looking for alternatives. They’re saying, ‘I’m going to find a different way to get to work.’ ”

road safety

Albany resident Claire Nolan and her husband, Bert Schou, teach “Savvy Cyclists” courses that teach riders the rules of the road, hand signals and other intricacies of urban cycling. “We’re seeing a lot more people,” Nolan said. “The price of gas is pushing people over the edge.”

The “Savvy Cyclists” courses draw bikers of all experience levels and are open to bikers 14 and up. “We’ve had very experienced cyclists take the courses and learn a lot,” she said. “We’ve had people who had never considered getting on a bike and using it for transportation.” The goal of the courses, Nolan said, is to get people riding on the roads. “For people who are comfortable illegally riding on sidewalks or bike paths, it would be very appropriate for them to learn to ride in traffic,” she said.

The New York Bicycling Coalition is pushing the state to pass “Complete Streets” legislation; such legislation would require roadway design to consider the needs of cyclists, mass transit users and pedestrians, as well as cars.

“Statistics show that cyclists are safer when they operate as users of the road, as traffic,” said Jennifer Clunie, program manager for the New York Bicycling Coalition. “Under state law, bicyclists are traffic.”

The Capital District Transportation Committee is working with Altamont and Albany to develop bicycle plans. Both plans would connect routes in these communities with regional trail systems, according to Jason Purvis, a senior transportation planner at CDTC.

Yet even as interest in biking is growing, the Capital Region still lacks a sense of urgency when it comes to biking, Purvis said. This is largely because commuting in the Capital Region is easy — the traffic isn’t that bad, the commutes aren’t that long and there hasn’t been real leadership around the issue. But Purvis believes things are changing. “It’s starting to get on people’s radar screens,” he said. “There’s going to be a demand from the public and riders to have better facilities.”

Back on the bike

Two months ago, Glens Falls resident Sarah Clarkin, 46, outfitted her 20-year-old mountain bike with a headlight, taillight, side view mirrors and two panniers — bags that can be attached to a bicycle and used to transport groceries and other items. “Originally I was thinking about getting a wire-rimmed basket, but when I went to the bike store they said you can’t really get those anymore,” she said.

Downtown Glens Falls is pedestrian-friendly, and Clarkin walks to many of her destinations. Biking, she said, is just an extension of that. Now, for instance, she can ride two miles to the supermarket or video store rather than drive. “I’m an environmentalist at heart,” she said. “I view this as another way I can minimize my driving. It’s also a lot of fun.”

For the most part, Haller was new to biking when he started commuting. But he has no plans to stop.

He’s since ditched the mountain bike and purchased a bike designed for commuters, the Trek Comfort bike. “The mountain bike was 20 years old,” he said. “The new bike is a little lighter, a little easier to handle. It’s got a rack on the back to carry stuff.” His commute takes an hour and 20 minutes if he buses and an hour and 45 minutes if he bikes the entire distance. “I don’t mind the time,” he said. “If I’ve got something pressing, I drive.”

Haller said he was motivated by higher gas prices but also a desire to reduce his carbon footprint. Though he drives a fairly efficient Toyota, he said he realized that relatives who drive less efficient SUVs actually have a smaller carbon footprint, simply because they don’t commute to work. He, too, has noticed that there are more bikers on the roads.

“It’s amazing how many guys you see riding,” Haller said.

Categories: Schenectady County


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