Gas Prices Fuel Comeback Of Bike Patrols

Hollidaysburg Police Sgt. David Gehret, left, and officer Mark Lingafelt pedal up Union Street in Hollidaysburg, Pa., on Friday, May 23, 2008. Since even the long arm of the law can't rein in fuel prices, some police departments are dusting off their bikes and turning to pedal power. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Since even the long arm of the law can't rein in fuel prices, some police departments are dusting off their bikes and turning to pedal power.

As the price of gas approaches $4 across the country, law enforcement is feeling the pinch just like everyone else. Some departments are encouraging more foot patrols, while others are discouraging officers from letting their engines idle or making them travel in twos.

Now, departments are also going back to a community policing tactic that had fallen by the wayside in many places: bicycle patrols.

"You think the car's the great savior of us all, but in urban areas and dense areas, you're probably better off on a bike," said Chris Menton, an associate professor in the School of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, who has studied police bike patrols.

In the 1980s and 1990s, bike patrols were a new concept and many departments were starting them, said Wes Branham, a police officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina. But after 9-11, he said, they went "totally out the door. Money went elsewhere."

Now, rising gas prices are encouraging departments to get those bikes back off the rack.

Branham, who heads his department's bike unit, said it began with two officers in 1994 and has grown to 25 full-time officers and 150 part-time riders. The department has about 1,800 officers.

The Law Enforcement Bicycle Association has been touting gas savings in its training courses, too, Branham said.

"Departments are just trying to find more economical ways to patrol," he said. "A lot of departments are starting to realize they're getting a lot of bang for their buck with a bike."

In the tiny western Pennsylvania borough of Hollidaysburg, police Chief Jeff Ketner said high gas prices prompted him to resume daily bike patrols several weeks ago.

The department's regular bike patrol had fallen by the wayside and was mainly being used for special events. Ketner resurrected the program after realizing he was on pace to go $6,000 over budget on the department's four vehicles by the end of the year.

Departments all across the country are making similar decisions.

In Clive, Iowa, a Des Moines suburb, Police Chief Robert Cox said more officers will be biking and walking to save gas.

With gas at more than $3.50 a gallon, Cox said his department has already spent its 2007-08 budget of nearly $41,000, which allotted $2.40 a gallon for 17,000 gallons.

It's the same story in Toledo, Ohio. Chief Mike Navarre said that, although the department has long had bikes, he has been telling his officers to use them more, and walk more, to save gas.

Police bike organizations say they are starting to notice the spike in interest.

"Gas is one of a number of factors that come together in terms of establishing, revitalizing or expanding a unit," said Maureen Becker, executive director of the Baltimore-based International Police Mountain Bike Association, which provides training and resources to public safety agencies.

Even departments that implemented bike units for other reasons are noticing gas savings.

In Bedford, Va., the police department bought eight bikes last year and are now saving 200 to 400 gallons of fuel per month, said Lt. Jim Bennett, who's in charge of the bike unit for the department. The benefit is twofold, he said, with cost savings and increased police visibility.

Bike patrols do have limitations. Weather can be a problem and they also can't be used to transport suspects or engage in vehicle chases.

But advocates say the benefits of cost savings and public visibility are worth it. Bikes also can go places cars can't.

Trek Bicycle Corp., in Waterloo, Wis., sells more than 1,000 police bikes a year and sales have been going up for three years, said Stefan Downing, who manages the company's police bike program. He said rising gas prices have probably been a factor.

The prices of police bikes vary, but they typically cost about $1,100, Downing said. They are typically rugged mountain bikes; Trek also offers police a silent hub that doesn't make the ratcheting sound that typical hubs make.

Proponents point out that biking helps keep officers in good shape, too.

"I keep myself in pretty good shape, but it's hard," said Hollidaysburg Sgt. David Gehret, 46. "I'm primarily a desk sergeant ... it was really nice to get out and about."