Inland bicycle group peddles pedaling as commuting option

An organization of bicycle commuters spanning San Bernardino and Riverside counties is citing rising gas prices, growing environmental awareness and recent improvements to a regional bike route to promote more people pedaling to and from work.

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Published May 5, 2007 by The Press Enterprise
By Chris Richard

An organization of bicycle commuters spanning San Bernardino and Riverside counties is citing rising gas prices, growing environmental awareness and recent improvements to a regional bike route to promote more people pedaling to and from work.

The Bicycle Commuter Coalition of the Inland Empire has promoted cycling for more than a decade, with achievements such as persuading local public agencies to install bike racks on buses and establishing a free bicycle storage facility for spectators during the annual Redlands Bicycle Classic.

But recently, interest in the bike as workaday transportation seems to be growing among the public and government agencies alike, said Jonathan Baty, the coalition's government affairs manager.

The coalition is campaigning to widen bike lanes on city streets and to improve bicycle access to roadway crossings over the Santa Ana River. It also is compiling local cities' plans to promote cycling for inclusion in the Southern California Association of Governments' development plan.

And the group is developing a motivational PowerPoint program, featuring the achievements of local riders, for local elementary schools.

Health, Monetary Benefits

The show includes a segment on board member Steven Christiansen, whose past recreational bicycle trips have included a 2,200-mile ride from Loma Linda to Yellowstone National Park and a solo transcontinental journey. He plans to ride from San Diego to Austin, Texas, next spring.

Between such epic journeys, Christiansen pedals 150 miles each week, including his daily 9 ½ -mile commute between his north San Bernardino home and the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in Loma Linda, where he works as a physical therapist's assistant.

A lanky 6-footer, Christiansen is in extraordinarily good shape, with a resting heart rate of 42. He clearly takes pride in his cross-country adventures. But to help change popular perceptions on the bicycle as transportation, he turns to statistics from daily routine.

"I'll point out that if you spend $57 per week on gas, that works out to a little more than $3,000 a year," he said. "People have told me, 'Oh, I never thought of that before.' Well, now they do."

Likewise, with traffic congestion mounting, the speed of a bike commute makes for another selling point. Christiansen makes the trip between work and home in 35 to 40 minutes. That's only five minutes slower than driving, he said.

There are other benefits, too: no monthly gym fees or time lost slogging at an exercise machine. And no need to travel inside a glass-and-steel box.

"You can smell the flowers," Christiansen said.

To stress the physical benefits of a daily ride, the coalition has signed on to San Bernardino County's Healthy Communities initiative

Activists say they're also hoping to get a boost by the completion, in late April, of the linkup between the Riverside County and San Bernardino County sections of the Santa Ana River Trail.

Baty said the coalition has helped Redlands city officials in seeking a planning grant for the Orange Blossom Trail, a local bike route that connects to the Santa Ana River corridor.

Bob Mitchell, who serves on a San Bernardino County commission that oversees trails and greenbelts, called the new route "a tremendous asset" in providing a bicycle link between the counties and an opportunity for safe exercise away from traffic.

Elizabeth Preston, spokeswoman for the League of American Bicyclists, said such developments fit a national trend. Each year, Preston's organization sponsors a national contest for city governments that promote cycling and provides safe routes.

"We've always had strong support for the program in California, but this week, my boss is in Flint, Mich. That's not a place you'd ordinarily associate with bicycles, but they're working on a program," Preston said. "We're seeing more and more of that."

Car-Oriented Culture

Coalition board member Eleanor Lippman said the local effort is just a start, and agencies need to do more to integrate bicycles into the traffic flow.

Several years ago, Lippman said, she tried to persuade UC Riverside administrators to give bicycle-related information prominent play on the university's Web page. Instead, she said, they sequestered it under "alternative means of transportation."

"For someone who's a bicycle commuter to be treated as alternative, that's diminishing what we're doing," she said. "I couldn't get it through to people that you have to establish credibility and importance for using a bicycle instead of a motor vehicle."

Dan Clark, an associate professor of English at Riverside Community College's Moreno Valley campus, thinks that might take a long time. The planning assumptions of an automobile-based culture don't easily make way for bikes, he said.

Clark, who commutes by bicycle, said people do seem curious about his choice. But so far, none of his acquaintances has followed his example.

"The lifestyle of Southern California, where people live 20, 30, 40 or 50 miles from their jobs, is inimical to bicycle commuting," he said. "It's almost like a critical mass. Because nobody does it, there's almost no support system for the people who do."

Still, Baty said he's encouraged by the progress so far. The organization is supporting federal legislation that would grant tax breaks to bicycle commuters.

"I keep letting people know I save a gallon of gas a day by using my bike for commuting," he said. "People do pay attention to that, and we're building connections."

Reach Chris Richard at 909-806-3076 or crichard@PE.com