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Queens Chronicle

Bike commuters save hundreds

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Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009 12:00 am

With monthly MetroCards going up to $89 this month and gas nearing $3 a gallon, commuters stand to save hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars each year by ditching traditional forms of transportation and biking to work.

About 185,000 cyclists, most of whom are commuters, wend their way through New York City’s streets each day, according to Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for a bicycle advocacy group called Transportation Alternatives.

The number of bicycle commuters in New York City is on the rise — up 35 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the city’s Department of Transportation.

“We’re seeing an exponential increase,” Norvell said. “Part of that is the economy — people just looking to save on the cost of transportation — and part of it is the increasing viability of bike commuting.”

In 2006 as part of PlaNYC, a 25-year plan for enhancing the city’s urban environment, the DOT committed to creating 200 miles of on-street bike routes within a three-year period. As of February, about 170 miles were completed, and the remainder are slated to be finished by the end of June. More than one quarter of the total miles of new bike lanes are in Queens.

Rich Furlong, a Jackson Heights resident who works both at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City and in lower Manhattan, said he saves about $1,500 a year by commuting by bike — which he said is a noticeable amount, especially since he is supporting a growing family.

Philip Papas, also of Jackson Heights, agreed that he saves a significant amount of money by cycling to his place of employment in Chelsea, which he started doing full-time this year. In the past, he put $40 on his MetroCard once a month; now, he only has to top off his card every few months.

Of course, there are startup costs — not just for the bike, but also for rain gear, warm clothing for the winter and a reliable lock — and there are maintenance costs, such as replacing flat tires and keeping keeping bike components in good condition. But even factoring in all of those expenses, Transportation Alternatives estimates that biking is the cheapest form of transportation.

For most people, it’s also no slower than taking the subway or a car — and in some cases it can be significantly faster.

Transportation Alternatives organizes an annual commuter race, in which one contestant cycles from point A to point B, another contestant rides the subway and a third takes a taxi. For the past eight years, the cyclist has won, arriving at the finish line as much as 20 minutes before the next participant.

Individuals who commute by bike on a regular basis agreed that their trip takes about the same amount of time that it would with other modes of transportation, and they add that they feel more in control of their commute, since traffic snarls and subway delays don’t affect them.

Then there’s the pleasure factor.

“My commute is fun,” said Furlong, who says he hates taking the 7 train, especially during rush hour. “When I commute by bicycle, I feel that my commute is my time, but when I take the train I feel work starts the minute I go through the turnstile. So mentally it shortens my work day.”

Dan Tainow, who lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and bikes to work at the Queens Botanical Garden about once a week, said he always feels better on the days he rides his bike.

Papas said even in the rain, biking is the most enjoyable way to get to work. “All I have to do is think about what it’s like to get on a crowded rush hour subway train, and I say, ‘Boy, you know what — I’m getting on that bike.’ You get so used to the freedom of being outside — of being in the environment and just enjoying everything around you — that it’s very difficult to go back, once you get hooked.”

Bike commuters add that cycling to work is a great way to stay fit — without incuring gym costs or eating up leisure time.

There are challenges though. Cyclists wrestle with heavy traffic, inclement weather, the risk of theft and the challenge of arriving at work without getting sweaty.

“You have to get used to having that buzz around you — the noise, the horns honking behind you, car doors opening,” Papas said. “It’s a visual and audio overload in the beginning. … But that’s good — that’s a survival thing. It makes you a little slower, a little more careful.”

Keeping a slow pace also prevents commuters from perspiring too much.

“You have to know not to overdo it so you don’t arrive at work looking like you just did an extreme workout,” Papas said. A gentle ride, a clean shirt and a few wet wipes seem to do the trick for curbing perspiration. His colleagues serve as his body odor barometer. “No one has ever complained,” he joked.

Tainow doesn’t have to worry about sweating, since the botanical gardens, where he works, have shower facilities — precisely to encourage employees to bike to work.

The showers helped the gardens attain LEED certification for their new visitors’ center — meaning that the building qualifies as an environmentally sustainable structure according to guidelines established by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Even if sweating isn’t an issue, it’s easy to arrive at work looking bedraggled. Many bike commuters skirt this problem by riding in bike clothes and changing at the office.

Some added that they opt for the subway when rain and snow hit, although others just pile on the foul weather gear.

“As long as I can get to work not drenched, I’ll take the bike,” said Larry Gaugler, who lives in Elmhurst and has been commuting to work in lower Manhattan for about 23 years. “And I don’t care what the weather is going home — I will always take my bike.”

As for the final big concern — theft — cyclists say a good lock is indispensable for those who can’t store their bikes inside. And they say it helps if your bike looks a little the worse for wear.

It pays to make your bike “as ugly as possible,” Papas said. “That means not cleaning it, putting disgusting stickers on it, a little spray paint here and there, — anything to make it as unappealing as possible to a thief.”

He added that some stores offer to make bikes look worse, the same way some clothing companies distress jeans. “People will literally beat up your bicycle for you,” Papas laughed.

Tips from the pros: How to succeed in cycling to work

Want to start cycling to work? Worried about the logistics? Here’s some advice, compiled from interviews with regular bike commuters.

Wear biking clothes for the ride and change when you get to work.

Bring work clothes with you or leave them in the office. A little deoderant and a clean shirt go a long way.

Buy good foul weather gear if you plan to commute in the rain or snow.

Don’t ride too fast. This will keep you safer as you move through city traffic — and it will make you perspire less.

Get a good lock for your bike or store it inside.

Obey traffic laws (they apply to bikes too), respect pedestrians and watch out for parked vehicles and opening car doors.

Be noticeable at intersections. Stay out of drivers’ blind spots, don’t hug the curb — and remember you can take up a whole lane if you need to, especially when turning.

For cycling maps, suggestions about the fastest, safest routes to take, rules of the road and additional tips, visit:

nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/bikemain.shtml

transalt.org

bikingrules.org

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