Ditch the drive to work

  • Rolling Meadows resident Nick Lenarz commutes to work on his bike every day to Northbrook. The trip is
about 15 miles each way and takes an hour.

    Rolling Meadows resident Nick Lenarz commutes to work on his bike every day to Northbrook. The trip is about 15 miles each way and takes an hour. Daily Herald file photo

Published: 9/2/2007 6:35 AM | Updated: 9/2/2007 6:43 AM

High gas prices have sucked cash out of our pockets for months.

Nick Lenarz takes a stand every day when he hops on his bike in Rolling Meadows and pedals 15 miles to his job in Northbrook.

On a good day, he sees other cyclists on the road, reminding him he's not alone in his quest to be healthier, support the environment and save a ton of gas money.

Then there are the not-so-good days.

He's had encounters with anti-bikers, occasionally ending with an object thrown at him: an apple, garbage, an open beer can.

"Luckily, I've never been hit," the 34-year-old jokes.

Lenarz's trip takes about an hour each way. He started riding to work on a regular basis last year, mostly spurred by high gas prices.

He estimates he's saved $50 a week in gas.

"That's $200 a month I get to keep in my pocket instead of pouring into the tank," he said.

There's no question that bike commuters are growing in number, experts, bike salesmen and advocacy groups say, though no exact count is available.

"As the gas prices creep, people are thinking of alternative ways to get around," says Wayne Mikes, who owns Mikes Bike Shop in Palatine.

He reports sales are up by 30 percent this year on accessories for bike commuters like baskets and bags.

"People are starting to be more accepting of bicycles as transportation," Mikes says.

Spreading the word

Biking to work has been a part of the region's lexicon in recent years.

Annual Bike to Work Days are catching on, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is a bicycle advocate. Some local companies encourage employees to ditch their cars.

Christopher B. Burke Engineering in Rosemont offers financial incentives for people who commute on a bike.

Employees who bike to work get paid 48 cents a mile. The program is in its second year and out of 200 employees, about a dozen participate.

Bike commuting is making waves nationally, too.

A proposed law called the Bicycle Commuter Act is working its way through Congress, which provides a tax benefit to employers who offer cash reimbursements to bikers.

Still, many admit the suburbs have been slower to catch on to the biking concept than the city of Chicago. Experts say that towns like Evanston, Skokie, Naperville and Schaumburg have really become more bike-friendly in recent years.

Pete Cleary, a manager at Bike Line of Naperville, says the store is selling a lot more racks, storage bags and bike lights, showing people are using them to commute.

"Overall, there is an increase of people doing it," he said. "In Naperville, we have a lot of corporate offices, and it's easy to get around with paths and trails."

Three things are now behind the increase in bicycle commuters, says League of American Bicyclists spokeswoman Elizabeth Preston: the obesity crisis, global warming and high gas prices.

When he started commuting in 1999, Rob Sadowsky of Chicago said he'd see maybe one or two people who were also on bikes during his commute. Now, it's not unusual to see a dozen people bunched up at a stop light, he says.

"To me, that is representative of how big it's gotten," said Sadowsky, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation's executive director.

More and more suburbs are also starting to make their communities more bike-friendly by adding lanes and routes for cyclists.

"My sense is that people have always had a tendency to want to become healthier and more fit," Sadowsky said. "But when you combine it with the economic incentive to save money, it makes it much easier."

The daily grind

Ruth Buffalo of Wood Dale works the overnight shift at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village.

She bikes to work at night and heads home early in the morning for the one-hour ride. The 48-year-old doesn't stop when it's raining or temperatures are freezing.

"I feel this is one of the few things I can do to protest the high price of gas: reduce my driving," she says.

Debbie Snyder of Sugar Grove cycles about 22 miles to her job in Naperville a couple days a week.

"It is extremely peaceful in the morning and a lot less stressful than driving," says the 48-year-old. "It requires a little bit of planning because I need to bring my clothes to work the day before so I can change when I get to work."

While almost every bike commuter cites happier workdays because of their mode of getting transportation, they admit there are dangers.

Lenarz, the Rolling Meadows bike commuter, may joke about not getting hit by thrown objects, but he's had a couple close encounters on the road.

Cars edge him over to the curb. Drivers yell at him to get on the sidewalk while walkers and joggers tell him to stay on the street.

On one morning commute, he slammed into the back of a van when the driver suddenly stopped the car.

"You just have to be aware of everything that's out there," said Lenarz.

As a safety precaution, he wears a reflector vest on the road. He also carries stuff to work in bags and racks on his bike and wears a face mask to lessen the exhaust he inhales.

Plan the commute

Lenarz will bike in all weather conditions except lightning. He checks the forecast each morning before leaving.

"When I drive and the weather turns out to be good, it's almost like I want to drive home on my lunch break just to ride my bike back," he said.

Over the past year, he's tested several routes.

Some busy streets like Euclid Avenue are bike-friendly, he says, but taking Dundee Road over the tollway is "frightening."

Many local bike shops will help commuters plan a route to work.

Considering distance, traffic volume, road width and the condition of the terrain are important first steps, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

Even though some routes may be a little longer, they can be more pleasant. Officials advise to always carry a map for detours.

"Anyone can ride to work," said Preston, the league spokeswoman. "You just have to get over the fear."

Who's biking to work?

Nick Lenarz, 34

Lives in: Rolling Meadows

Works in: Northbrook

His commute: 30 miles roundtrip, about an hour each way.

He says: For the most part, people are surprised that he rides to work. He wishes more bikes were on the road, meaning fewer traffic jams.

Joe Lewis, 54

Lives in: Cary

Works in: Hoffman Estates

His commute: Drives to Algonquin or Lake in the Hills, then bikes to Hoffman Estates, about 45 miles roundtrip.

He says: One side benefit is seeing all the nature. He often spots foxes, deer and coyotes. The biggest problem is running out of sunlight.

Ruth Buffalo, 48

Lives in: Wood Dale

Works in: Elk Grove Village

Her commute: Rides 14 miles roundtrip, about 30 minutes each way.

She says: This is one of the few things she can do to protest high gas prices.

Debbie Snyder, 48

Lives in: Sugar Grove

Works in: Naperville

Her commute: Rides about 22 miles one way, depending on the route.

She says: Gas prices are the main motivation. Some people at work think she's a little crazy, but she thinks more people should try it.

Theresa Virgilio, 40

Lives in: Chicago

Works in: Des Plaines

Her commute: Rides 36 miles roundtrip, about 90 minutes each way.

She says: It's a nice change of pace. She's at work all day, so biking to work is a good way to get outside.

How employers can encourage bike commuting

The bottom line

• Supporting bike commuting is less costly than in-office fitness facilities.

• Employers who appreciate workers' personal needs have less employee turnover.

• Healthier employees can reduce health insurance costs.

Better employees

• Workers will see commuting as personal time to relax instead of increasing stress.

• Fit employees are more alert, productive and efficient.

• Bike commuting can be substituted for the gym, saving employees personal time.

Bike facilities

• Showers and private changing rooms are ideal.

• Arrange for shower use at a local health club for your workers.

• Devote hanging space or a standing wardrobe so cyclists can store work clothes.

Parking and storage

• Indoor, secure bike parking near changing rooms on the ground floor is ideal.

• For outdoor bike parking, use bike lockers or covered racks. Area should be accessible, visible and secure.

Route coordination

• Appoint a bike commuting coordinator to help employees plan low-traffic, safe and direct routes using local bike route maps.

• Encourage cyclist education among employees; educated riders are safe riders.

Financial incentives

• Partner with a local bike shop to offer discounts or maintenance clinics. Allow the bike shop to showcase new models during lunch.

• Offer subsidies for bike commuters who don't use car parking spaces. Other incentives can include mileage stipends, extra vacation time and providing lunch to bike commuters.

• Allow bike commuters to dress more casually at work; organize a lunchtime race.

Promote it

• Form a company bicycle club or race team; increase your own exposure locally.

• Offer tips on how to start a bike commuting program to other local businesses.

• Encourage employees to help co-workers make the switch to bike commuting.

Source: League of American Bicyclists