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Beacon blog: Pedal power: Confessions of a bicycling commuter

This article first appeared in a St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2011 - I've been a year-round bike commuter for three years, except for a five-month period when I rode the bus. (When the Grand Bridge was demolished, my bus commute time increased to 50 minutes; my 4.4-mile bike route takes me less than 20 minutes.) My bike odometer is coming up on 7,500 miles. St. Louis weather being what it is, I've ridden in temperatures from 0 to 100 degrees and every conceivable form of precipitation.

The benefits of bike commuting are exceedingly obvious: it's cheaper, healthier and better for the environment than any form of motorized transportation. Most people start for one of those reasons, but they continue because they love it.

Patty Vinyard, bicycle racing promoter and sales associate at Big Shark Bicycle Company and former executive director of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation, said, "Across eight interviews I did with people who bike to work, the main reason people keep it up once they get started is spiritual. Really, they find an irresistible joy in it and don't want to go back to spirit-killing car commuting."

Personally, I started bike commuting because I didn't want to pay for a parking pass when I worked at Washington University. I ride a Trek 930 mountain bike that I bought used for $250 when I was in college. I keep thinking about buying a new one, but I like the idea of my cost per mile approaching zero.

On city streets, cars are ponderous, plodding, ridiculously oversized things that are a prime contributor to the destruction of the urban environment. Bikes, on the other hand, are sleek, elegant machines that are at once whimsical and practical. I enjoy the empowering, DIY-ethic of bike culture. Many people look forward to a weekend bike ride as a special treat. I get to ride five days a week.

It's not hard to find people who are passionate about getting to work on two wheels. Bill Nolan, a staff scientist in the Washington University School of Medicine's Pulmonary Research Unit, has been commuting by bike for about 13 years on and off, and daily for about six. He explained, "I started daily commuting out of necessity when my truck broke down and I was too broke to fix it, and found that I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I now ride about three miles in the mornings and 12 or so on the way home with my son."

Dave Llloyd, a computer engineer at Exegy, started biking to work four years ago when the co-worker he was carpooling with decided to start bike commuting. Now, he said, "Out of an office of 60, there are three of us who commute by bike almost every day, and seasonally around two or three more."

For him, "What started off as just biking to work evolved into biking everywhere. Work, the store for groceries, take out from South Grand, delivering kids to school and preschool, dates with my wife and the occasional FBC ride." About two years ago, he converted his mountain bike using an Xtracycle kit and a trailer so that he can haul four kids and a week's worth of groceries. He said, "I estimate we save around $7,000 per year at the low end by only having one car. But I keep riding because it's so much fun. And it feels a bit like flying."

In his opinion, "St. Louis is a pretty bike friendly place, especially in the urban core and inner ring suburbs. I encounter rude drivers no more often than I encounter them while driving a car, which is pretty rarely." Jason McClelland, a high school math teacher who has been bike commuting full-time for nine years, agrees. He said, "I think that the city of St. Louis is extremely bike friendly.  There are many good roads that parallel major roads that are less trafficked and make great routes for cycling.  The further out in the sticks one gets, the less alternatives there are for cycling on non-busy roads."

Tim Lepczyk, a librarian at Washington University, has been a bike commuter for six years. Asked why he keeps riding, he said, "I continue to bike because commuting is one of the best parts of my day; I love being outside" even though he feels "St. Louis is not very bike friendly. Drivers don't respect cyclists, and there are not many bike lanes."

That sentiment was echoed by Adam Allington, a journalist for St. Louis Public Radio, a bike commuter for 12 years who rides 22 miles a day from the Tower Grove South neighborhood to the University of Missouri St. Louis.

"Lots of people talk about St. Louis being so great for biking. I kind of disagree," said Allington. "Most of the city's main arterial streets and bridges (Grand, Kingshighway, Skinker, Big Bend, Chippewa, Gravois, etc.) do not have shoulders, let alone bike lanes. It is possible to navigate St. Louis on a bike, and things are improving in some areas. But until the city manages to make it safe to bike north and south, or get downtown without risking life and limb, I will continue to gripe about the 'STL bike friendly myth'."

Still, he finds that bike commuting is "a good way to get some exercise and get where I need to go — two birds with one stone. I find that it's a much less stressful way for me to get to work. Instead of being stuck in traffic, which I hate, I arrive refreshed. It's also a good way to transition in the evening."

Carrie Zukoski describes herself as a "fair-weather commuter." She's been riding to work regularly for about 10 years. She said, "I keep commuting because I feel so much better when I do. I miss it when I don't. Having less miles on my car and maybe only filling the gas tank once a month doesn't hurt either." Cycling has become such an important part of her lifestyle that when she was looking for her current job at the United Way she kept her search within 10 miles of her house so she could continue to bike commute with relative ease.

On my daily rides to the Beacon's office, I'm seeing more bikes on the road this spring than ever before. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future of cycling in St. Louis, including the Regional Bike Plan, the Downtown Bicycle Station, organizations like Trailnet and the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, the Centennial Greenway Trail, passage of the Complete Streets Resolution, approval of specialty license plates in support of bicycling, and artistic bike racks on Morganford and (soon) in the University City Loop.

Zukoski said, "I have a lot more people ask me questions about cycling and commuting than I used to. I just do what I do -- ride correctly and as positively as I can and hope others take note and do the same."

If you're interested in joining the growing ranks of bike commuters in St. Louis, tomorrow is an excellent day to start. McClelland pointed out, "All you need is a bike, a route, and the motivation to ride." Nolan's advice to potential new riders is simple: "Take your old bike out of the garage and put your lunch and a clean shirt in a backpack, and try it. Nothing fancy, just go ride."

Brian Marston is web developer for the Beacon.

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