When I was assigned a story for tonight's CBS Evening News with Katie Couric on bike commuting – how more Americans are getting to work on two wheels instead of four due to gas prices – I had a couple of questions. A few were serious, one somewhat vain. Who is really doing this? Could it be the start of a new trend? Is it safe? (Biking on New York City streets is not for the faint of heart!) Should I consider commuting by bike? And now to the superficial inquiry – what do you do about helmet head?
What my producer, Tony Maciulis, and I learned is that people of all ages are pulling out their old bicycles from the garage – or buying new ones (sales for bikes have doubled in one Philadelphia store we visited). People like Rich Himmer, a 55-year-old software engineer, who now spends about 45 minutes biking seven miles to his office. Rich cited gas prices, concerns about global warming and the timesaver of doing his workout while travelling to work as his reasons for joining the growing ranks of bike commuters. "I'm saying if I can get in shape now, when it (gas) gets to $8 a gallon, I'll be all set," he joked.
We don't know exactly how many people are now biking to work but one national biking group estimates at least one million are – but that number is based on the 2006 census, which means the current total is likely higher. Anecdotal evidence alone points to a surge in bike commuting. For instance, wholesale shipments of bike racks jumped 44 percent for the first six months of the year, compared to last year.
Bike-sharing programs are also popping up in cities like Washington, D.C. this summer and possibly in Philadelphia if some biking advocates get their way. Think of it like renting a car. In the D.C. case, you pay $40 a year for a card that allows you to pick up bikes at locations through the city and use them on an hourly basis.
Russell Meddin, a biking advocate in Philadelphia, helped convince the city council to look into whether bike sharing would work in Philly. "Every time I go past a gasoline station and see the price jump, that's the closer we are going to have bikesharing here in Philadelphia and in many other cities throughout the United States," he told us, with his bike nearby.
Okay, but is it safe? More cities are considering increasing the number of bike lanes, with New York City set to add a bike lane to the Times Square-area later this summer. Still, a spokeswoman with The League of American Bicyclists, a national biking advocacy group in Washington, says she has seen people riding against traffic and on sidewalks, and says education programs may be needed especially if the trend continues. "You do forget how to ride safely," she said.
Could I do it? I borrowed a bike from one of our national editors who has been commuting by bike for more than 20 years. It was scary at first, riding with traffic on some New York City streets, but once I hit the bike lane along the Hudson River, I felt safe, and made it to the office in less time than it would take in a taxi or on the subway. As a mom with two little ones who has zero time to exercise, bike commuting gives me the added benefit of getting a workout while commuting.
So I'm considering trying it out – with my husband's bike – and I'll let you know how it goes. Of course, there is that superficial concern I mentioned at the top. What do you do I do about helmet head? It may just be a price worth paying for an easier, cheaper and healthier commute.