'When People Ride Bikes, Great Things Happen'

'When People Ride Bikes, Great Things Happen'

Rising gasoline prices don't much worry Rob Gusky. Gusky, a 48-year-old process engineer at a Kimberly-Clark facility in Neenah, Wisconsin, travels to work year-round by bicycle, making the 17-mile round trip even in winter. (Friday's low in Neenah was 20 degrees.) When it snows, he switches to a bike with studded tires.

Why? Because biking to work is good for his health, good for his pocketbook and good for the planet. What's not to like?

Gusky, pictured at left, who has been a committed bicycle commuter since 2008, when gas prices first topped $4 a gallon, has led efforts to spread the practice through Kimberly-Clark. Spurred on by bicyclists inside the company, Kimberly-Clark now sponsors a competition among its employees to promote bike riding, a statewide program called "Get Up and Ride," a fall biking event to raise money for the United Way, and free bike tune-ups during Bike to Work week. The company provides ample bike parking and showers at its offices worldwide.

Business support for bike community is one reason why more Americans than ever -- about 765,000, according to a 2009 survey by the census Bureau -- bike to work. That number is up by 44 percent since 2000 but it could and should be higher. It represents just 0.55 percent of all Americans. By comparison, 76.1 percent of commuters drive to work alone. Here's a spreadsheet on commuting choices from The League of American Bicyclists, with interesting historical and geographic data, including a list of cities that shows which one have the most bike commuters. Portland and, to my surprise, Minneapolis, lead the way; it turns out that Minneapolis has 46 miles of streets with dedicated bicycle lanes and 84 miles of off-street bicycle paths.

With gas prices rising, I called Tim Blumenthal to see what could be done to encourage biking as a means of transportation. Tim is the executive director of the Bikes Belong Coalition, an industry association dedicated to putting more people on bicycles more often. A former magazine journalist and avid mountain biker, Tim, who is 55, has been a TV commentator for more than 35 ESPN and OLN/Versus mountain bike programs.

He began by sharing some data with me. Roughly half the trips that Americans take in their cares are three miles or less; about 39 percent are two miles or less. Many of those trips could easily be made by bike.

But they're not.

While about 50 to 60 million Americans will ride a bike at least once a year, only a tiny fraction of those use their bikes for transportation. Partly this is a matter of habit. "We're all creatures of habit and, no matter how far we're going, we automatically reach for the keys," Tim told me.

But government and business, together, have nudge people out of their cars and onto bikes.

"Government has been the key," Tim says, "and government will probably continue to be the key." In cities with more dedicated bikeways or bike paths–that is, rights of way reserved for bicyclists or shared with walkers or runners–more people bike. The single biggest reason why more people don't bike more often for transportation is that they are concerned about safety.

Here progress is being made. Federal support for bike-friendly transportation has grown from a piddling $20 million in the mid-1990s to more than $1 billion, including stimulus funding, in the last couple of years. The Washington, D.C., area (where I live) recently built a dedicated bike lane along 15th Street and has plans for lanes along Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street. Treehugger reported last week that Los Angeles has a master plan that includes 1,680 miles (!) of interconnected bikeways.

Companies have solid business reasons to support this movement (no pun intended). It's no accident that among the leading supporters of bicycling are health-care giants Humana and Kaiser Permanente, Tim told me. "If you're paying the bills for people who get sick, you want to do anything you can to reduce the number of times that people get sick and the severity of the illness," he said.

To see if your company is bicycle friendly, check out the "Bicycle Friendly Scorecard" from the League of American Bicyclists. The group also publishes a list of bicycle friendly businesses that you can download here. Leading companies not only provide bike racks and showers for commuters, they offer bike safety classes, equipment tutorials and even loaner bikes for short trips.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see more government or business support for biking, visit peopleforbikes.org and sign a pledge in support of "a better future for biking."

Biking, after all, is good for your physical and mental health. It's good for the environment. It helps ease traffic congestion. It reduces our dependence on Mideast oil. Writing in Grist, Elly Blue goes to far as to say that "a new bicycle economy is emerging" that can pull cities and towns out of the recession.

I'm skeptical about that, but I can't argue with Tim Blumenthal when he says:

If more people rode bikes more often, I think the world would be a better place. When people ride bikes, great things happen.