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The bike-to-work alternative: Save money and stay fit

As the days grow warmer and longer and gas prices near $4 per gallon, many a driver's fancy turns toward commuting to work by bicycle.

Although it's too soon for hard numbers, at least anecdotal data show that more people are interested in exchanging a driver's seat for a bike saddle. "We've been getting more calls asking how to do it," says Elizabeth Preston, communications director for the League of American Bicyclists, a bicycle advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Bicycle coordinators in the transportation departments of cities such as Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wis., concur. "My perception from ... talking to folks is that there has been an increase (in riders)," says Colly Kreidler, bicycle program coordinator for the city of Austin.

A bicyclist's motives
With it costing $40 or more to fill up a car's gas tank, cycling commuters can save money and get fit in the process of getting to work. "I burn 2,000 calories on my commute, so I get to eat whatever I want," says Doug Warner, a summertime cycling commuter in Bozeman, Mont.

For the past six years, the Missoula Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Board in Montana has sponsored a "Pedal Versus Metal Challenge" race in downtown Missoula in honor of National Bike to Work Week in mid-May. Cyclists generally beat the motorists "pedals down." In a recent contest, 68-year-old cyclist Ethel MacDonald crossed the finish line in seventh place, beating all but one motorist.

To ease traffic congestion, municipalities and state governments are encouraging folks to pedal rather than drive. For example, to better accommodate people who ride their bikes to the subway stations, the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation is replacing about 640 bicycle racks at its Metro stations at a cost of $200,000. Chicago has its Millennium Park Bicycle Station, where cyclists can securely store bikes and even take a shower before work. More than 80 percent of American cities surveyed in 2004 reportedly planned to build new bikeways.

Many cities and towns are vying to be among the most bicycle-friendly communities in the United States. The League of American Bicyclists rates communities according to how friendly they are to cyclists. Among the top-ranked cities are Portland, Ore., with a platinum designation; and Madison, Wis., and the Tucson, Ariz., metropolitan area, which both received "gold" rankings.

The downside
Of course, there are disadvantages. While cycling can save travel time, it can be harder to organize than driving. Cycling commuters must devise good, safe routes to work, locate secure places for their bikes and find ways to clean up after their rides to work.

The bicyclist's wardrobe  
Next: "You don't have to buy a lot or do a lot to start commuting by bicycle."
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