Bicycle offers viable option for cautious commuter

May 22, 2004|By ROB KASPER

I RODE a bike to work yesterday and survived.

Several factors motivated me to hop on my bike. Recently I had spotted cyclists rolling down the street en route, I assumed, to gainful employment. They seemed fit and happy. Then, two weeks ago, I read about a Bike to Work rally in which cyclists gathered at four sites - Towson, Bel Air, Annapolis and downtown Baltimore - to reinforce the notion that riding a bike to work was both possible and beneficial.

There was also a practical aspect to getting on the bike: I needed the exercise.

Finally, when you have a household of four drivers competing for two cars, as we do, it is a good idea to have an alternative form of transportation. I ride my bike regularly on the weekends. But riding then is a lark compared to riding on a weekday. The big difference is the traffic. On the weekends, it is virtually nil. On the weekdays during rush hours, you have to be something of a nihilist to go up against it on a bicycle.

Perhaps I exaggerate. I am not a cycling zealot. I don't have the shorts or the shoes. My old bike, a three-speed Raleigh, does not turn any heads. One more thing: I am chicken. Riding in heavy traffic scares me.

Yesterday I waited until the morning rush hour waned, until 8:56 a.m., to start my commute. I arrived at work, about a mile from our Bolton Hill home, 12 minutes later.

I had a few nervous moments. As I rolled past the Lyric Opera House, where Mount Royal Avenue splits into two roads, I was able to slide over to the eastbound section without getting clobbered. While waiting in the curb lane at a red light at Mount Royal and St. Paul Street, I kept looking over my shoulder for drivers who wanted to turn right on red. People seem to be in a hurry at that intersection, eager to turn down St. Paul. I know that's how I feel when I drive. But yesterday, I made it past that hot spot on my bike, then cruised down Guilford Avenue without incident.

At work I parked in a dark, dank shed, a space set aside for bikes (and for storage of ice melt), and was ready, after a cup of coffee and a pastry, to take on the working world.

The ride has some pleasant aspects. The morning air was cool and seemed relatively clean. While stopped in front of the Lyric, I saw a seasonal rite, students of the University of Maryland School of Nursing, clad in long black gowns, posing for pictures with relatives before graduation ceremonies commenced.

A block or so later, I swallowed some historic dust. At Mount Royal and Maryland avenues, a demolition crew working for the University of Baltimore was leveling the Odorite building, a structure preservationists wanted to save. The building may be gone, but the dust is preserved in my lungs.

Since my commute was short and mostly downhill, I did not have to change clothes or take a shower when I got to work. It was Friday, a day casual wear is tolerated in most workplaces. In a newsroom, casual Friday garb could be considered an improvement, or at least not very different, from what we usually wear to work.

Once at my desk, I made some calls to a few experienced bicycle commuters, and compared my biking experience with theirs.

Jakub Simon, 33, told me that he rides his bike about three days a week from his home in Anneslie off York Road to the Center for Vaccine Development in the University of Maryland School of Medicine in downtown Baltimore, a distance of about eight miles.

He ticked off key factors to successful bike commuting. "You take a designated route. You follow all the traffic laws, and you keep your eyes open for a car door that might open suddenly, or a driver turning right and not expecting to see you."

In the last two years, there have been a few rough spots in Simon's ride. He said he "got clipped" by a car whose driver made a sudden right turn without signaling. Kids hanging out at Martin Luther King Boulevard and U.S. 40 have pelted him with rocks as he headed home.

Nonetheless Simon has stayed with it. "You get some exercise, it is good for the environment." Riding a bike to work can be a relaxing, mind-clearing experience, he said.

Jim Miller told me that being a bike commuter requires you to be well organized. Miller, a 43-year-old architect, rides his bike five days a week from his home in Anneslie to the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University, where he works in the office of facilities management. He keeps a supply of suits and ties at his office and changes into them each morning from his biking togs. To travel to business appointments, he drives a car provided by the university.

He also plans the routes he takes. Biking along Roland, Lake and Bellona avenues can be enjoyable, he said. But traversing the narrow stretches of York Road can be a challenge.

I also spoke with David Duvall, 36, who spends his work days riding a bike around the Baltimore metropolitan area for Magic Messengers Inc. and spends his weekends racing bikes for the Trek/VW East Coast factory team.

This guy is in a different league than I am. He cycles more miles in one week than I will in my lifetime. He has been biking in Baltimore traffic for the last 15 years and has never, he said, "had a bad accident ... one I couldn't walk away from."

I wanted to know how he fared so well. Duvall told me he always wears a helmet, has plenty of blinking lights on his bike, and equips his bike with puncture-proof tires. He also has a mindset. "You are constantly defensive," he said. One more thing: This master cyclist tries to avoid the morning rush hour when, he said, the traffic "is insane."

After listening to these veterans, I decided that I will occasionally ride my bike to work. But only in good weather and only after the roar of the rush hour has ceased. Maybe I'll call the occasions my "Biking Fridays."

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