Fed up with sitting in traffic and paying more than $50 to fill his tank, Scott Morrison ditched his gas-guzzling pickup and started biking to work.
Rain or shine, Morrison now bikes the six miles from his home in Fairfield, about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco, to the packaging plant where he works as a machine operator. Six months after switching to two wheels, he feels more relaxed and healthier, having lost nearly 50 pounds.
“Every time I get on the scale, it’s like I’m getting rewarded for riding to work,” said Morrison, 38. “The two biggest complaints people have are not having enough money and obesity. I’m taking care of both.”
As gas prices climb to record highs, more Americans seem to be abandoning their cars and biking to work to save money at the pump. This week, as cities across the country celebrate National Bike to Work Week, advocates are promoting bicycle commuting as a way to trim transportation costs, get in shape and help the environment.
“Every additional person who rides their bike to work would start reducing our dependence on foreign oil immediately,” said Tim Blumenthal, who heads the Bikes Belong Coalition in Boulder, Colo.
Cycling to work is just one way Americans are seeking relief from skyrocketing gas prices. People who normally drive to work are riding public buses and trains, working from home and carpooling with colleagues.
“People are starting to look for fundamentally different ways to travel,” said Bill Wilkinson, executive director of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking in Bethesda, Md. The soaring price of fuel “prompts people to really think about where they live and how they get around.”
Bike shops nationwide are seeing more customers who want to buy new bikes or repair old ones to commute on, said Fred Clements, who heads the National Bicycle Dealers Association in Costa Mesa, Calif.
“They have seen a surge in interest from the public about riding bicycles as a way to reduce the impact of high gas prices,” Clements said. “People that already have bikes suddenly realize this would be a great way to save money.”
About 20 million bikes were sold in the United States in 2005, one of the industry’s best years ever, and retailers are optimistic that escalating gas prices will lead to record bike sales this year, Clements said.
Organizers are promoting National Bike to Work Week with a series of events aimed at getting drivers to try commuting by bicycle, if only for a day. Many cities including Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., will host special events for commuters on Friday, National Bike to Work Day.
The San Francisco Bay Area is marking its 12th annual Bike to Work Day on Thursday, when volunteers will hand out refreshments, breakfast foods and biking information at 170 “energizer” stations in nine counties.
About 36,000 Bay Area residents bike to work on a typical work day, but organizers expect up to 100,000 people to participate on Thursday, given the widespread frustration over gas prices that have surged past $3.50 per gallon here and elsewhere.
“The biggest challenge is that people think the car is more convenient,” said Cole Portocarrero, who heads the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition, a sponsor of the event. Once they try biking to work, “they realize it’s convenient, fun and enjoyable.”
Unlike most countries, the vast majority of bikes sold in the United States are used for recreation rather than transportation. About 550,000 Americans — less than 1 percent of U.S. workers — bike to work regularly, according to Blumenthal.
Advocates are trying to boost those numbers. But while cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis have bike-friendly streets and high numbers of two-wheel commuters, other cities were built for cars and lack bike lanes and paths.
“You don’t feel the love in a lot of places when you’re riding your bike,” Blumental said. “For a lot of people, it’s intimidating and you don’t feel safe. It’s a lack of shared respect between cyclists and motorists.”
But advocates are optimistic that America will become more bike-friendly as cities, states and the federal government boost spending on bike paths, lockup racks and bike stations where cyclists can park and shower.
The $286 billion federal transportation bill signed last year will double the amount of money available for bike and pedestrian facilities to about $4 billion.
Federal legislation introduced in the Senate last month would offer employers a tax incentive to help cover the cost of riding to work.
“This is a fair and modest proposal that will reward employees who ride their bikes to and from their jobs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the bill’s sponsors. “They are saving energy and overcoming their dependence on oil and gas.”