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July 23, 2009

Two wheels are better than four, some employees say

Pitt faculty and staff are part of a growing trend: commuters who have chosen two wheels over four when it comes to getting to work.

Compared to drivers, bike commuters’ numbers are tiny — but growing. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in 2007 bike commuting rose 38 percent in Pittsburgh from the previous year. On average, 0.77 percent of commuters in large cities got to work by bike. Pittsburgh was No. 11 with 1.1 percent, up from 0.8 percent in 2006; Portland, Ore., ranked No. 1 with 3.9 percent.

Efforts are underway to raise Pittsburgh’s numbers. The city has hired a bike/pedestrian coordinator and developed initiatives designed to improve conditions and increase safety for cyclists, including the addition of bike lane and shared lane pavement markings. (Details on the city’s bicycle plan are available on the bicycle/pedestrian coordinator link at

The city also has partnered this summer with bicycle advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh to promote Car Free Fridays (, which encourages commuters who might otherwise drive to work alone, to choose an alternative — using public transit, walking, biking or carpooling — at least one day a week.

Bike Pittsburgh’s Louis Fineberg said it’s hard to know how many people are participating because the initiative is so new. However, he said, the number of organizational partners involved — more than a dozen — is “unprecedented” compared with similar initiatives such as Bike to Work Day.

At Pitt, it’s hard to pin down how many faculty and staff are commuting by bike. Figures from Pitt’s Office of Parking, Transportation and Services cover only a fraction of Pitt’s bikers: Of 29 bike lockers rented for the spring term, eight were to faculty and staff. In addition, a dozen new bike registrations were submitted during spring term.

Anecdotal evidence — including more people arriving to work in bike attire and fewer empty spaces on campus bike racks — may give a better indication.

“Pittsburgh wasn’t built for bikes,” but riding conditions are improving, said Mark Frey, who commutes by bike to University Marketing Communications in Forbes Pavilion, where he is a web developer. “There are a lot more people out so it’s easier to bicycle,” he said, noting that cyclists are becoming more visible around town.

In spite of Pittsburgh’s hills, he said, it isn’t difficult cycling in town. “The only thing that freaks me out is downhills in the snow,” said Frey, who bikes year-round.

Frey, who dislikes driving and avoids it whenever he can, said his decision to move back to Pittsburgh after several years in Phoenix was influenced in part by neighborhoods from which he and his wife could walk, bike or bus to the places they want to go.

He bikes to work about one-third of the time, taking the bus on other days. Frey has a four-mile ride of about 20-25 minutes from Point Breeze — about the same time as he’d spend on the bus and “way more fun than standing at the bus stop.”

He volunteered as a bike pool leader when the threat of a Port Authority strike last year forced transit riders to consider other options. He has continued to be listed through Bike Pittsburgh as a bike pool leader for a trip from the East End Food Co-op to Oakland, but has had no takers.

Frey said he typically puts his work clothes into panniers or a backpack then washes up when he arrives at his office after his short ride. He curtailed his bike commuting temporarily this spring in favor of walking with a weighted pack as training for the 34-mile Rachel Carson Challenge hike. “Walking was sweatier than biking,” he found.

He said he’s heard his share of negative comments from drivers who don’t want bikes on the road, but is conscientious about respecting pedestrians and drivers, riding with the flow of traffic and obeying traffic signals. If he disrespects the law, it’s bad for all cyclists, he said. “People will think all cyclists are going to behave unpredictably.”

Although he considers himself a recreational rider, he averages about 10 miles a day, putting baskets on his bike for trips to the grocery store, as well as biking Downtown to do errands or go to Pirates games.

He enjoys the freedom of being on a bike, getting exercise and saving time. “You get to go out for a while at the end of the day and get to ride,” he said, noting it turns a potentially stressful commute into a stress reliever.

Cost is another factor — although he has an old Saturn, it’s parked as much as possible in favor of the bus or the bike, which saves on parking and gas expenses. “I’m cheap,” he said with a laugh.

Julie Brooks, a doctoral fellow in the School of Education, has several reasons for commuting by bike:

On a political level, she said, “It’s important to me to take some responsibility where I can cut down on the number of cars, parking lots and pollution. Biking is a great alternative to a gas-guzzling vehicle. Individuals making choices leads to collective choices to change environmental issues.”

On a personal level, “It’s great exercise.”

Admittedly “not a morning person,” Brooks said the ride to campus serves as a mood lifter, preparing her for the day.

Brooks estimated she bikes about 70-75 miles a week, including her 4.5-mile work commute from the Regent Square area.

Although she has a car, she said she uses it only when necessary to get out of the city, or to transport things she can’t manage by bike.

Her commute on two wheels takes about 15-20 minutes and “there’s always plenty of parking” when she arrives on campus.

Brooks doesn’t wear special biking clothes for the short commute, noting that it’s easy to freshen up upon arrival. For her, a shower isn’t necessary — the last leg of her 15-20 minute trip is downhill through Schenley Park, helping her to cool off a bit before she arrives at campus.

Her short hairstyle is easy to manage and she allows enough time to cool off from the exertion before heading off to teach. Having no set “uniform” to wear in the classroom is a plus, she said, admitting the details might be more difficult if she were expected to wear a dress or a suit.

Linguistics professor Scott Kiesling has the wardrobe issue covered. Kiesling prefers not to bike in street clothes, so he periodically brings work attire to his Cathedral of Learning office so he can change after he arrives.

A large metal cabinet that looks as though it might contain books and papers instead holds his work wardrobe and biking gear.

His three-mile commute from Squirrel Hill takes 15-20 minutes — often faster than it would take by car. And because it’s mostly downhill on the way to Pitt, “sometimes I’m not even breathing hard.”

Biking home is his chance for exercise and recreation. Depending on his mood, he often takes the long way home — a trip that could be six, 10 or 15 miles, depending on the recreational route he chooses. “That’s my gym,” he said, figuring that he puts in 40-50 miles a week commuting and takes a longer ride of 30-50 miles on the weekend.

Kiesling is a veteran bike commuter. He estimates that with the exception of some time in Sydney during which he lived so close to his workplace that he walked instead, he’s biked to work in various locations for the past 20 years. He figures he’s averaged an eight-mile daily commute over the years, although his current trip from Squirrel Hill — a neighborhood he selected in part for its bikeability — is shorter.

Kiesling said he will bike to work “unless it’s really slippery or sloshy,” worrying more that a car might hit him in bad weather than about his ability to control his bike. If conditions are bad enough, he can walk his bike, he reasons.

He rides through the winter months, using lights and altering his work hours to take better advantage of the shortened daylight hours.

Even when his children were small and in University day care, he biked using a tow attachment so they could pedal along.

“I don’t like being in a car,” he said, preferring the more human scale of interaction that biking facilitates. In cars, people are separated and less in touch with one another. “People say things from a car that they wouldn’t say face to face,” he said. “Cars are not real human society.”

He acknowledged there is tension among pedestrians, cyclists and drivers “almost everywhere.” And, he said, “There are idiots in every category” — be they obnoxious drivers, oblivious pedestrians or bikers who blatantly ignore traffic laws.

Just last week, a driver shouted at him to get off the road. He lets such comments roll off his back. “They’ll just yell and go away as fast as they can,” he said. “And if they yell, they see you, so you’re probably safer.”

More recognition that bikes are a form of transportation, not toys, is needed, he said. New bike lanes and designated shared lanes for bikes and cars increase drivers’ awareness. “It’s an acknowledgment for bikes to be there,” he said, adding that he is noticing an increased awareness among drivers that cyclists are on the road, although he finds that acknowledgment somewhat seasonal. While drivers are accustomed to seeing cyclists on the roads in summer, “in winter, people don’t expect to see a cyclist,” he said.

“Maybe there’s a little more acceptance; at least acknowledgment that there might be a bike on the road,” he said. “People are starting to become more aware that cyclists are there.”

While many Pitt bike commuters have a relatively short downhill ride from the East End, some staff and faculty ride in from more distant parts.

Thanks to the availability of bike trails along the rivers, about three years ago Don Henderson began cycling to Pitt from the South Hills several days a week.

He’s met several other commuters who ride regularly from southern suburbs. Unlike East End commuters who may get by with a quick splash of water upon arrival, longer-distance commuters need to end their ride with a more substantial rinse, with many getting to know one another in passing as they stop by the Bellefield Hall fitness center to shower.

Henderson’s 13-mile commute from Carnegie takes him through Green Tree, into the West End and up and over Mt. Washington — with some stunning morning sunrise views from Grandview Avenue along the way.

A long downhill on the scenic McArdle Roadway takes him to the Liberty Bridge, from which he accesses the Eliza Furnace Trail Downtown.

He takes the Eliza Furnace Trail to the bucolic Panther Hollow Trail — dodging its notoriously territorial turkeys and some four-legged hazards in the form of dogs, squirrels and groundhogs along the way.

The trail’s terminus at South Neville Street is convenient to his Craig Hall office, where he is assistant creative director at University Marketing Communications.

He drops off his bike at the Craig Hall rack, picks up clothing (which he brings on the days he drives) and heads to a shower at Bellefield Hall.

With occasional variation to avoid boredom, he typically just reverses the route for the homebound trip, insisting that biking McArdle Roadway isn’t the toughest part of the journey, given that traffic is slow there during rush hour and the hill may be long, but not too steep.

Part of the stress-reducing enjoyment of the trip, he said, is watching traffic inch along the Parkway at 5 miles an hour as he’s cruising along at 20 miles an hour on the bike trail.

Henderson, preferring not to ride after dark, doesn’t commute by bike year-round. Typically, he quits when the end of Daylight Saving Time in fall cuts into the daylight hours.

During fall and spring, he dresses in layers in cool weather, but isn’t opposed to leaving the bike behind if heavy rains come. Henderson admitted he might take the bus home if the weather turns bad during the day, or sleep in and opt for the car on mornings when it’s pouring rain.

He looks at the 50-60 minute ride as an opportunity for two good workouts without taking much more time out of his day.

The exercise not only helps him work off excess winter pounds and the results of weekend caloric overindulgence, it makes it easy for him to participate in Fitness for Life competitions. Noting that his team is No. 10 in the current activity challenge, he said, “I’m putting down 120 minutes versus 20 for most people.”

Part of his rationale for bike commuting is that it allows him to fit exercise into a busy schedule. “I can get two hours’ worth of riding in, and it’s no more time than if I’d drive,” he said, estimating that biking instead of driving might add 20 minutes to his commuting time.

“My drive to work is 35-40 minutes. It can be an hour if something happens on the Parkway. Biking takes the same amount of time every day unless I get a flat,” he reasoned.

City riding can be hazardous to the tires — he counts on getting a couple of flats each year from glass on the pavement, and always carries a spare inner tube and repair supplies.

He said he experiences less trouble from drivers while biking in the city than on country roads where motorists sometimes throw things from vehicles or spout verbal abuse. In the city, heavier rush hour traffic seems to curtail the harassment. “They might want to hassle you but they know someone else in another car is watching. And they know you could catch up at the next light.”

Still, his decision to commute to Pitt initially didn’t sit well with his wife. “She thought I was going to be dead every day,” he said, joking that when he’d call to let her know he’d arrived at work, she’d be relieved to know he was still alive.

Biking isn’t without its hazards, though. In April, he crashed while crossing wet railroad tracks on the Panther Hollow Trail. He rode off muddy and bloody, suffering bruises and a fractured thumb, but not seriously hurt.

Undaunted, he continues to ride.

“Any day on a bike is better than a day in traffic,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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