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Gas prices turn local drivers into bikers

Bicycles that once sat unused are becoming a significant mode of transportation in the bay area.

By MARLON A. WALKER and MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published June 28, 2006


ST. PETE BEACH - Tom Davis packed his bicycle when he moved to Florida, but only because he thought he might put a few miles on it while living at the beach.

But the little green bike that collected dust for eight years turned out to be the key to Davis' new life.

In the nearly three months since he left the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, Davis has taken to bicycling from his St. Pete Beach apartment to work at Woody's Waterfront Cafe and Beach Bar, where he provides music entertainment.

He also bikes to the grocery store, using baskets over the back wheel for storage, and to shop at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg.

Since he moved, he's put more than 1,000 miles on the bike. He's put only 160 on his Dodge Caravan.

With regular unleaded gas prices in the Tampa Bay area charging from time to time toward the $3 mark, more people are cutting down their time in vehicles, turning to bicycles as alternative modes of transportation.

"Sometimes, I go a few days without even remembering I have a car," Davis said recently, packing his guitar into its case for his daily bike ride to work.

High gas prices have also translated into a spike in business for some bicycle shops. Consider that the starting cost of a bike, about $250, is equal to the average cost of a month's worth of gas, according to AAA Auto Club South.

"It's one small personal thing any American can do to reduce dependence on foreign oil," said Tim Blumenthal, the executive director of the Bikes Belong Coalition, a national organization of bicycle manufacturers and retailers dedicated to get more people to ride bikes more often.

"Plus, one less car means less congestion on the road," he said. "Every time you leave your car home, it helps with air quality."

St. Petersburg resident Tom Polly is looking to save money on gas going back and forth on errands. So he recently took his bike out for a test drive, trying to make it downtown from his home near U.S. 19 and Haines Road.

He decided to try the bike-on-bus method, which recently became cheaper for bicyclists who use Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses. Earlier this month, the authority stopped requiring bus riders to have $2 permits to put their bikes on bus-front racks.

"I just want to see how it works," Polly said, putting the kickstand down on his bike to wait for a bus on Fourth Street N at 10th Avenue.

Everything went fine. Polly said he expects to leave his car home more often.

Charlie Allen, the owner of Temple Terrace Schwinn, 12712 N 56th St. in Tampa, said he's heard similar stories about customers coming in to get bikes for short commutes to grocery stores and other nearby trips.

"We've never heard that in years past," Allen said. "It's a good sign that people are recognizing that a bicycle is not just a toy."

Lloyd Peterson, the manager of ABC Bicycles, 6633 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg, said about 10 percent of his weekly customers are new clients looking to buy bikes.

"It's really easy and comfortable," Peterson said about choosing to run an errand on a bicycle instead of running to the car. "And it's a healthy thing to do."

That's one of the hidden benefits Davis said he's come across in giving up his van. About two weeks after being in town, he noticed his clothes were getting loose. He stepped on a scale and realized he'd lost about 10 pounds.

"I think I've lost about 30 pounds total (in two months)," Davis said. "It keeps you out of the house and away from food.

"I mean, you can't pull through a McDonald's drive-through on a bike."

The new lifestyle fits him so well that he recently dropped $400 to upgrade to a new bike, a 7100 by Trek. The bike is a hybrid, built with the comfort of a mountain bike, but designed like a road bicycle.

If biking is so wonderful and beneficial, then why aren't more taking it up?

Blame an environment designed almost exclusively for the automobile, said Chris Hagelin, who chairs the Hillsborough County Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

When roads get built, not just in Tampa but throughout Florida, little if any space is reserved for bikes, Hagelin said. This gives the motorist a mistaken impression that cyclists don't belong on the roads, so they forget about them.

The nonprofit Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, D.C., regularly ranks the Tampa Bay region, along with Orlando and Miami, as the most dangerous in the country for pedestrians and cyclists.

"Safety remains the No. 1 concern for those considering switching to cycling commuting," Hagelin said. "That trumps everything. If it's not safe, people aren't going to risk their lives to save a few dollars."

Cheryl Thole, 27, knows the risks of the road firsthand.

She was hit by a pickup on June 15 as she pedaled to her job at the University of South Florida, where she works as a researcher for the Center of Urban Transportation Research.

Thole was shaken, but unbowed. "I'm not going to stop," she said. "The benefits far outweigh what happened."

Davis also remains committed.

"I refuse to drive," he said. "The gas prices make me irritated."

Marlon A. Walker can be reached at (727) 893-8737 or mwalker@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 28, 2006, 05:55:19]


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