Try on a new set of wheels

The Baltimore Sun

David Schapiro has a message for anyone, including other SUV owners, thinking about taking a bicycle to work: Don't dismiss the idea without giving it a try. There are plenty of excuses for scoffing - you're too old and rickety; you live too far away; it's too dangerous to bike; you'll shvitz too much - but, Schapiro says, a little common sense, combined with some open-mindedness and positive energy, can get you there.

Or at least get you home again.

Schapiro lives in Roland Park, on the north side of Baltimore, and he works in Hunt Valley. He doesn't drive his Land Rover much anymore. He uses a combination of the bike and light rail to get to work each morning. He takes the bike all the way home in the evening. Schapiro started biking three years ago. He was overweight, pushing 375 pounds, with a 49-inch waist. He wanted to be "fit at 50." He's lost 80 pounds since then, and his waist is between 38 and 40 inches now.

Last summer, he started "biking in earnest," and he became determined to find a way to get to work on two wheels.

Of course, in the Baltimore metropolitan region, and pretty much throughout the United States, biking is considered something that only the fit and sports-minded do - and primarily a weekend recreational activity. It's not considered an element of the transportation system. Few people who have the most opportunity - the estimated 53 percent of us who live within 2 miles of public transportation, for instance - ever give it a try.

"Bicycling and walking typically account for one-fourth to one-half of all personal trips in European cities," says the Federal Highway Administration. "This stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where the share of personal trips made by non-motorized means fell in recent decades to less than 10 percent."

Clearly, things are starting to change.

Joe Traill, proprietor of Joe's Mt. Washington Bike Shop, says people with every kind of dust-covered bicycle have been marching into his store in recent months, pledging to push pedals as the price at the pump pops. These people aren't looking to trade up; they just haven't used their Treks and Giants in a long time, and they're breaking into a sweat with gasoline at $4-plus a gallon.

Schapiro, one of Traill's customers, plotted a commute that would keep him off the busiest roads between his house and Hunt Valley. But he decided that trying to get to work on time by bike during morning rush hour didn't make sense. So he pedals to a light rail stop, takes his bike aboard, travels by rail to Hunt Valley, then pedals to his office. At the end of the day, when he has more time, he bikes all the way home - about 8 miles. He takes his single-speed city bike to the supermarket, too. He can fit two bags of groceries in the satchels attached to his bike.

These days, motorists stuck in traffic open their car windows and ask questions about this bike-commuting thing.

"People stop and talk to me all the time," Schapiro says. "At the grocery store, when people see me with my bike and groceries, they say, 'I really should be doing that.' But they make excuses, all kinds of excuses, and these are people younger and skinnier than me. People don't know what they are capable of unless they try it. I believe that; if most people tried it once or twice, they'd love it."

Still, connecting the bike to public transportation has its challenges. If more people get Schapiro's idea, there may not be enough room for them on light rail, or on the MTA buses equipped with front-end bike racks.

On the other hand, if more people try this, like it, get excited about it as an alternative to their automobiles, a constituency could develop, and the MTA would be forced to adjust. That might take a while, but it certainly seems to fit with our current anything-but-petrol ethos.

"Reduce our dependence on oil and reduce obesity," is the double value David Schapiro sees. He has joined the transportation committee of Baltimore's sustainability project and he's going to push for a public transit system that caters more to the biking crowd.

Please note: It's not necessary to take your bike with you to work. According to the MTA, most light rail and Metro subway stations have bicycle racks, as do many MARC train stations. The MTA also has bike lockers available - for $70 a year - throughout the bus system, and at train and subway stops.

As for danger on the roads, Schapiro says the more you bike, the more comfortable you feel. He also says you have to stop thinking about the route you've traveled repeatedly by car and consider safer, alternative routes with less traffic.

As for the shvitzing, Schapiro's light rail-and-bike tandem reduces that issue: You simply don't sweat as much on the way to work. For those who want to go all the way on their bikes, various experts have numerous suggestions - ride at a measured pace; cool off with a wet paper towel; towel or sponge off; carry some extra clothes in a backpack; keep extra clothes and toiletries, particularly powder, at the office.

Details, details. All these things can be worked out. The larger point, Schapiro says, is this: "If I can do it, anyone can. Friends look at me and say they can't believe it's me. I'm healthier, I'm more confident. ... I'm a different person."

He's a reformed SUV owner saving plenty on gas and reducing his carbon footprint daily.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.


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