If $4-a-gallon gas has you looking for relief, consider: A concerted effort is underway to attract casual bike riders into the fold. The lure is a range of new commuting bikes that promise to make everyday travel by bicycle as comfortable and fashionable as it is cheap. And if time is the excuse you give for being a bit of a slug, what better way to fit a workout in than to make it your transportation? "It's convenient; it keeps me fit; and it's economical," says Scott Infanger, a professor at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Ala., who regularly bikes his daughter, Elizabeth, 7, to school on the way to his nearby office in an effort to teach her that bicycling is a legitimate way to travel. With Elizabeth hitched behind on a trailer bike, it takes about 10 minutes to get her to school, Infanger says, about the same amount of time the 1½-mile trip takes by car.
In a country where most grown-ups regard bicycles as kid stuff, there are plenty of signs that attitudes are beginning to shift. Bike stores and manufacturers across the nation are reporting a significant uptick lately in sales. "They're selling out of all the commuting bikes—all bikes, by the way—that they can get their hands on," says Bill Fields, a consultant who has followed the bicycle industry for decades and anticipates a 20 percent bump in the "comfort bike" category, which includes commuting bikes, by year's end. Meantime, a bill that will allow employers to offer financial incentives to bicycle commuters is winding its way through the House and Senate. A bike-sharing program launching this month in Washington, D.C., which allows members to use bikes from 10 rental locations with the swipe of a card, has spurred interest in other cities. And, in Austin, Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong recently opened a cycling shop that caters not to racing enthusiasts but to commuters. Barack Obama has met with bicycle advocates and promised to increase funding for bicycling projects.
Greater comfort. Though old hat in many European and Asian countries, commuter bikes, which run generally between $400 and $900 at independent bike stores, are foreign to many Americans. A cousin to the mountain bike in the sense that it puts riders in an upright position, as opposed to the aerodynamic crouch of the racing or road bike, the commuter bike is more comfortable than either type of sport bike. Its tires tend to be large but smooth and perform better than rugged mountain bike tires on pavement; its wide seat distributes pressure more evenly than the narrow seats on sport bikes; and its ergonomically designed handlebars are curved back slightly for comfort. Most commuter bikes come with lights and bells, a basket or rack on the back for a briefcase or groceries, and mud flaps and an enclosed chain guard to protect clothes from grease or tears. Some even come with pedal-powered electrical generators that operate lights.
Shifting these bikes is less of an art; while sport bikes might have 18 or 24 gears, a commuter bike is apt to have just three (though some designed for hillier terrain have more). Many take advantage of an unusual shifting system that makes it possible to change gears when you're not pedaling, while others even shift automatically. The Trek Lime, for example, one of a series of coasting bikes designed for especially easy riding, has an automatic shifting system powered by a generator on the front hub, as well as old-fashioned pedal brakes designed to make the riding experience carefree. It runs slightly under $600.
Joe Breeze, one of the inventors of the mountain bike and owner of California-based bike maker Breezer, says sales of his company's commuter bikes are up 40 percent so far for the year. The Breezer Villager, which features a light aluminum frame and a seven-speed shifting system, was recently named best commuting bike of 2008 by Bicycling magazine.
Beginners and older riders might like Electra Bicycle Co.'s Townie, whose "flat foot" design allows for planting both feet on the ground for stability while seated. The company's Amsterdam line is also popular. And Biria, a German company, offers an especially low step-through frame that makes boarding easy, as well as a number of models that come with racks, fenders, and chain guards. "This is my first bike in 50 years," says Sylvia Reiser, 73, of Hamilton, Ontario, who recently bought a Biria for $400 after her doctor suggested biking was a good form of low-impact exercise. She sometimes uses the bike to pick up a few groceries and also rides regularly with her husband for fun.
For would-be long-distance bicycle commuters, a folding bike can make otherwise impractical trips a snap. The Montague CX Comfort, for example, folds up in seconds and stows easily in the trunk of a vehicle, making part-car, part-bike commutes a possibility. The wheels on the folding Dahon Vitesse D7 are so small that it's a simple matter to bring it along on the subway or bus.
It's often the serious sports enthusiasts who staff bicycle shops, and they sometimes take a dim view of comfort bikes, cautions Amy Walker, the publisher of Momentum, a magazine focused on the biking lifestyle. So the vibe can be intimidating for newcomers. She advises finding a shop where the service is friendly no matter what your experience level and test-riding as many bikes as necessary to find a good fit.
Cycling safely. One big roadblock to a rise in bike commuting is a concern about safety. In 2006, 773 people were killed bicycling, and tens of thousands injured. Of all the consumer products considered in a comprehensive 2008 report by the National Safety Council, only beds, floors, and stairs were associated with more hospital emergency room visits than bikes. Rutgers researchers who compared the safety of walking, biking, and driving found that, per kilometer traveled, bicycle fatalities were 11 times higher than car fatalities.
Still, experts say, some perspective is in order. In the Rutgers study, the rate of pedestrian fatalities associated with walking on the sidewalk was a full 36 times higher than car fatalities. And the health benefits of cycling probably far outweigh the risks. Regular moderate exercise is a boon for the heart, and research has shown that biking helps stave off obesity, arthritis, and depression. One Danish study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that because of the health benefits of bicycle commuting, the mortality rate among noncyclists was 39 percent higher than among the bikers. Another report, published by the British Medical Association, found that the benefits of cycling overwhelmed the risks by 20 to 1.
Updated on 8/4/08