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Bikes add benefits to the daily commute

 This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2009 - While some St. Louisans aspire to reach levels of cycling ability established by Tour de France racers, others take a more pragmatic approach, combining their motivations to ride with the daily need to get to work.

As a group, these transit cyclists span age groups, genders and professions. Their commitment varies, depending on factors like the length of their routes and the weather. But as gas prices rise and concerns about the environment and personal health materialize, these riders have begun to notice a growth in interest in a practice that has become increasingly central to their lives.

The Doctor is (biking) in

Dr. John Stith has some experience in transit cycling. “I’ve really gotten into riding to work for… 18 years, anyway,” he says. A physician at Saint Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, Stith has always found biking to be an enjoyable way to get to and from work.

A fellow doctor inspired him to try it out. “I ran into George Steinhart, who was a pediatric urologist,” Stith recalls. “He was into it, and he got me interested in it again. I got a bike and got going.”

Stith’s residence in the Central West End simplifies the commute. “It’s only about two miles away,” he explains. “The roads are not well traveled, so I don’t have a lot of traffic coming in.”

Over the years, Stith has grown more dedicated to riding. “I would just do it two days a week and mainly in the summertime,” he says. “In the last five years or so I’ve gotten it in whenever I can in the summer.”

Over the same time, he has relaxed his dress code. “At first I was kind of formal about it; when I was in the clinic I would wear a shirt and tie,” remembers Stith. Now, “I can go in, park my bike, take a shower, get in my scrubs, and just stay in my scrubs all day.”

Stith’s motivations include both personal benefits and global concerns. “It just feels good to ride. It gives me a new lease on the day,” he says. He also notes the environmental benefits. “I save a little bit of fossil fuel by using my own energy to ride in. It makes me feel better.”

Although Stith only rides recreationally on occasion, he also commutes to other places in his daily life. “I’ll try to use my bike to go over to the gym or the grocery store,” he says.

“Or visit my grandkids.”

Teaching on Two Wheels

Bill Anderson has not been riding to work quite as long as Stith, but he is quickly closing in on the miles the doctor has accumulated. A science teacher at Saint Louis University High, Anderson bikes to work from his home in North St. Louis County.

“When I ride both ways, it’s about 35 miles,” he says.

Riding south, Anderson has to avoid roads with high volumes of car traffic. “I try to stay off the really busy streets, because that’s just insane. Like Lindbergh: it’s not a good idea,” he explains.

Due to the length of his commute, Anderson often combines his bike with other methods of transportation. “On school day mornings, I usually ride to the bus stop, take the bus to the Metro, and then take the Metro to the station near school,” he says. “I figure the train is less likely to break down than my bike is.”

Like Stith, Anderson credits his co-workers for convincing him to ride his bike. Fellow teachers George Mills and Joan Bugnitz were “riding for a number of years, and it occurred to me that I could do it, too,” he recalls. “Over the course of the past couple years, I just started riding more and more.”

Anderson finds that he can tie his commute into his lessons. “One of the classes I teach is environmental science, and if I’m going to teach and preach, I should probably live it as well,” Anderson explains. “I think that’s part of it — just making choices that are a little bit more appropriate.”

He is optimistic about the opportunity to raise awareness about environmentally conscious commuting among his students. “I don’t know if it encourages any of them to ride,” he says. “But at least it lets them know that these things are possible.”

Office Solutions

“Like the majority of people, I’ve ridden a bike my whole life,” says Carrie Zukoski. “I knew some people in the biking culture, probably a long time ago. I saw what they were doing, and I was like, ‘I can do that’.”

Zukoski, who lives in the Central West End, has commuted to work for over 10 years. Her job at the downtown office of United Way of Greater St. Louis is five miles away.

“I try to make as straight a line as I can. So Washington or Martin Luther King Drive once I hit east of Jefferson. Sometimes Locust, sometimes Lindell,” she says, describing her route.

On the days she rides, Zukoski says, the benefits are obvious. “I usually find myself eating healthier throughout the day, and I have more energy,” she explains.

“Even if I’m tired during the day, by the time I get home from commuting I’m not tired anymore.”

Unlike Stith and Anderson, Zukoski works in a more traditional office setting, and she has learned to find solutions to the challenges it presents. For example, “at first we were putting [our bikes] in a corner office that wasn’t being used,” she says. Then, because others were biking to work as well, the office placed bike racks inside.

She outlines a few options for clothing. “If you do still drive, you could take your clothes to work one day and leave them there,” she says. “I fold them up and put them in a backpack.” A male coworker keeps an extra pair of dress shoes in the office.

Another common office concern is hygiene. “I take a shower before I leave in the morning, and that helps keep me cool,” says Zukoski. “When I get there, I have a washcloth and some moist towelettes.”

Despite the need for these workarounds, Zukoski values her rides deeply. “I miss it when I can’t do it,” she explains.

Biking Safely

Despite transit cycling’s small role in the St. Louis area, the cyclists note that their ranks are growing.

“There are definitely more people that are riding when I’m riding,” says Anderson. He hopes that as more people commute by bike, drivers will accept their presence. “There are people who occasionally will holler at you, tell you to get on the sidewalk, but those people obviously are not knowledgeable about traffic rules.”

Zukoski admits that her interactions with drivers have not always been serene. “Over the years I’ve learned not to be as aggressive with my emotions,” she says. “I try to assess the situation better before I react.”

As for the drivers, “I’ve had people threaten to kill me,” Zukoski recalls. But drivers seem to be growing more accustomed to cyclists. “Since last summer it seems like attitudes from drivers have been better.”

Anderson laughs off his one dangerous encounter with a car. “I got knocked over once and fell on the back of my head. … I was really impressed by the way the helmet functioned.”

“From a science point of view it was awesome. But if it had been my head…” he pauses before offering advice to other cyclists: “Just be safe.”

[For more advice on beginning to commute to work, Zukoski suggests visiting the St. Louis Bicycle Federation at stlbikefed.org .]

By the numbers

Based on 2000 census:

  • Bicycle work commuters: 1,244 (0.12% of overall population)
  • Bicycle school commuters: 6,813 (2%)
  • College students: 3,919 (10%)
  • Total of above: 11,976
  • Total estimated daily bicycle trips in region: 89,300
  • Number of bicycles on MetroBus (as of April 2004): ~1,600 per month
  • Miles of dedicated bikes lanes in Bike St. Louis system: 77

To find a map of dedicated bicycle lanes, go to www.bikestlouis.org/flash/bikeMap.html

Joe Milner, a student at Brown University, is an intern with the St. Louis Beacon.