A Four-Mile Commute on Two Wheels Rebecca Roberts joins two of her colleagues and thousands of fellow Washingtonians for National Bike to Work Day. She avoids being crushed by a garbage truck and enjoys an experience that she has to admit was "downhill all the way."
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A Four-Mile Commute on Two Wheels

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A Four-Mile Commute on Two Wheels

A Four-Mile Commute on Two Wheels

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Ah, the joy of a bike ride - cool breeze, sun at your back.

(Soundbite of engine revving)

ROBERTS: Narrow streets, rude drivers.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

(Soundbite of dog barking)

ROBERTS: Menacing dogs, murderous buses - why does anybody bike to work?

Unidentified Man #1: I usually bike to the metro and then take the metro in, but sometimes if there's good weather, I bike all the way down from north Bethesda. A bit of a break from my sedentary lifestyle.

Unidentified Woman #1: I work in Arlington; it's about five and a half miles.

Unidentified Woman #2: My husband makes me do it. I'm glad he did it. It's something we can do for the environment, but mostly as fun, though. I like that.

ROBERTS: Friday was National Bike to Work Day and the commuting cyclists in D.C. ranged from intimidating athletic types in the latest moisture wicking Lycra to smart looking professionals in well-tailored suits and sensible low-heeled pumps. The question is: what was I doing among them, biking to NPR with a microphone cleverly tethered to my helmet?

Well, it was all producer Ned Wharton's idea. But he was aided and abetted by Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Mr. ERIC GILLILAND (Executive Director, Washington Area Bicyclist Association): Look. So you are here...

ROBERTS: So I live right there, and this is Massachusetts Avenue.

Mr. GILLILAND: Right. There is actually a signed bike route that is this small dashed line here...

ROBERTS: Earlier this week, Gilliland mapped out a four-mile route for me, Ned, and engineer Rob Byers to bike from my house to NPR. It could have been shorter if I hadn't been so adamant about avoiding D.C.'s notoriously chaotic Dupont Circle. Gilliland also offered biking tips and some perspective on urban bike commuting.

But what should I be doing to prepare now that I have a couple of days warning?

Mr. GILLILAND: I would start off by checking over your bike. If you haven't ridden it in a while, it might need a little bit of a tune up. We start with the essentials, and we call it the ABC Quick Check. And this is something that's very easy to do. We actually teach it to third graders as part of our bike safety programs.

ROBERTS: So you're saying that if a third grader can understand it, I probably can.

Mr. GILLILAND: If a third grader can do it, you could probably do it.

ROBERTS: All right.

Mr. GILLILAND: And everyone who rides should probably do it before they go out. So the first thing you do is A, check the air in the tires. Make sure you have - your tires are properly inflated. B is for brakes, making sure that your brakes are functioning properly, because you really do need those. C stands for the chain and the cranks, so you make sure that your pedals are on properly and there's no loose play.

Quick stands for quick release, which is how most bikes come these days. It's with quick release skewers on the front and rear tires. So you want to make sure that those are down and so your wheels don't fall off when you're riding. And check is just bounce the bike and see if anything rattles and falls off, and if it does, then put it back on.

ROBERTS: As you bike regularly in the city, what are some of the hazards that I should be looking out for? What should I expect?

Mr. GILLILAND: Well, I think traffic is obviously the biggest concern that people face. Doors opening unto cyclists, I think a lot of cyclists, especially less experienced ones, tend to feel squeezed to the side of the road, they feel like they need to get out of the way of the cars that are behind them and it's really not the safest bet. So making sure that you're riding outside what we call the door zone, it's certainly a good start. Just being a very vigilant cyclist is a big part of the issue.

ROBERTS: So you want to ride outside of the door zone, you said. Away from where a parked car may open a door into you.

Mr. GILLILAND: Exactly. Exactly.

ROBERTS: But the alternative is riding in traffic.

Mr. GILLILAND: Well, actually, the bike safety maxim that we tell people is that bicyclists actually do fare best when they act like and are treated as motor vehicles. So really, just consider yourself another slower and smaller car out on the road, and that's how other drivers should treat you as well. By positioning yourself more in a travel lane, you're much more visible to traffic around you and therefore, safer.

ROBERTS: Which brings up, all of us as drivers have been on the road and seen a cyclist driving in a crazy, unsafe way, taking a right turn from the left hand lane, not behaving like they're obeying traffic laws at all. Does that contribute to a sort of rivalry between bikes and cars?

Mr. GILLILAND: I think there - it does create a little bit of animosity, since a lot of car drivers will see cyclists as lawless and that the traffic laws do not apply to them, which is obviously not the case. The traffic laws apply to everyone that's out there - cyclist, pedestrians, drivers.

ROBERTS: When you're cycling around town, are you ever tempted to fudge traffic laws? Do you always come to a complete stop at stop signs? Do you always wait for lights?

Mr. GILLILAND: Is this thing on? I've been known to fudge on a traffic law or two - and I can't believe I'm saying that on national airwaves - but it's been known to happen. I try to keep it to a minimum. And really, the safest policy is for cyclists to obey all these traffic laws, and as I mentioned before, you fare best when you act like you're a motor vehicle. And I think as cyclists, we expect drivers to obey the law, and we should obey the law ourselves.

ROBERTS: On Friday, after I bike to work, I'm going to catch up with you at Freedom Plaza and tell you everything that I did wrong. If you had to predict now, as a rookie bike commuter, what will I be telling you then? What are the most likely pitfalls?

Mr. GILLILAND: I think you'll probably come to me and say that you felt like you were being shoved around out on the road. And so it does take a little bit of confidence, but confidence does come with experience and knowledge. And so that's one of the big missions of our association, of WABA, is to try to promote and educate. And so it would make those trips that much safer and more enjoyable. But that'd be interesting to see how it turns out. I really hope you have a good time.

ROB RYERS (NPR Sound Engineer): I'd like to just, you know, make sure that it's not rubbing against the brakes.


BYERS: This thing is, like, really loose.

ROBERTS: Oh, okay. Let's tighten it up then.

On Friday morning, Ned and Rob, both veteran cyclists, checked out my bicycle, and then we were off. And the ride, at least in the beginning, was pretty quiet.

It's a pretty morning.

NED WHARTON (Producer, Weekend Edition Saturday): Yeah.

ROBERTS: We got lucky, I think.

(Soundbite of vehicle passing)

ROBERTS: Whoo-hoo. Cycling.

(Soundbite of vehicle passing)

ROBERTS: That was fun. I definitely like going downhill. Cruising past the cathedral.

WHARTON: Watch this car - it's cutting you off.


(Soundbite of engine revving)

ROBERTS: Taxi. Notorious. All right. We're getting our urban commute experience now. Jeepers.

(Soundbite of engine revving)

ROBERTS: Big truck.

(Soundbite of truck engine)

ROBERTS: A garbage truck.

WHARTON: Make sure to use my bell.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

ROBERTS: Excellent bell. That's a sound that's totally evocative of childhood, you know.

WHARTON: People think it sounds silly, but it's really important.

ROBERTS: It works.

(Soundbite of vehicle passing)

ROBERTS: Aaaaah, bus!

BYERS: Whoa. Watch out there, buddy.

ROBERTS: Yikes. That bus almost squished me.

WHARTON: You got to make sure they see you.

ROBERTS: Yeah, I have no idea if they saw me or not.

(Soundbite of vehicle passing)

ROBERTS: This is definitely the most pushed-around I've felt, on this stretch, made worse by the Ottenberg's bakery truck in the middle of the lane.

WHARTON: Yeah. And this is not good.

ROBERTS: Yeah. I'm not liking this one little bit.

(Soundbite of pounding)

ROBERTS: Did you see Rob's little act of civil disobedience there, thumping the bakery truck?

But we're almost there.

Actually, despite a few baffled looks at our curious recording equipment, it was a pretty uneventful half hour ride downtown. We didn't see too many other bike commuters on our way, but we found them at a Bike to Work rally at Freedom Plaza near the White House.

As promised, Washington Area Bicyclist Association director, Eric Gilliland, was there, too.

Mr. GILLILAND: Oh, so how was the ride in today?

ROBERTS: It was great, actually. 14th Street was a little ugly. We got squeezed by a bread truck.

Mr. GILLILAND: Oh really. Hmm.

ROBERTS: But otherwise, it was really pretty, and really lovely.

Mr. GILLILAND: Well, it's a great neighborhood that you live in, and I think those back routes that we take - that we were looking at on the maps...


Mr. GILLILAND: ...were probably the best way to go.

ROBERTS: We took that route although we missed 19th Street somehow.

Mr. GILLILAND: Well, maybe there's a sign missing. We'll check that out.

ROBERTS: We ended up taking 18th Street, which was less lovely. But it was cool.

Mr. GILLILAND: Oh, that's great. I hope you'll keep it up, do it some more.


(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Mayor ADRIAN FENTY (Democrat, Washington D.C.) And let this not be the last day that any of us bikes to work this year. Thanks everyone. Thanks for coming out.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

ROBERTS: Washington D.C. Mayor, Adrian Fenty is an avid biker. Fully decked out in Spandex and a racing jersey, he pumped up the crowd from the podium. Fenty's administration promotes policies to encourage bike commuting in the district. The man responsible for implementing those policies is city administrator Dan Tangherlini.

Mr. DAN TANGHERLINI (City Administrator, Washington, D.C.): We've been adding bike lanes; we've been adding bike racks. There's a bike rental program that the city is going to start soon. Been adding bike trails. I think what's happening is more and more people are realizing as traffic has gotten worse and worse, that this is an efficient, clean, and physically fit way to get to work.

ROBERTS: Do you bike to work?

Mr. TANGHERLINI: I do. My commute is only, now, it's been reduced quite substantially, it's just less than a mile, so it's almost not so much fun on the bike.

ROBERTS: Yeah, you don't even need a shower when you (unintelligible).

Mr. TANGHERLINI: I mean it's all downhill to work; it's all uphill home.


Mr. TANGHERLINI: Which is maybe the way it should be.

ROBERTS: Have you had any hairy bike-commuting stories?

Mr. TANGHERLINI: You know, I don't like to emphasize those. What I like are my great bike commuting stories when I used to work over at OMB, over by the White House, when I used to come up Capitol Hill. I'd turn around; I could watch the sunset behind the Washington monument. That's some of my favorite memories of the city, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue and riding toward the Capitol Dome. That's pretty cool, and you don't quite get the same feel in the car.

(Soundbite of vehicles passing)

WHARTON: So this is a big, wide bike and bus lane, but you see a lot of cars in the lane, which they shouldn't be.

ROBERTS: We have just a few blocks to go to NPR, one final leg up the shared bike and bus lane on 7th Street, although some drivers were a little unclear on that concept. In the end, fears like being crushed under the wheels of a garbage truck proved unfounded. And whatever the reason - exercise, cost, environmental friendliness - the small but dedicated number of folks who bike to work really feel they're onto something. And maybe they are.

This is the bike room.

WHARTON: We made it.


(Soundbite of clinking)

ROBERTS: As for me, I must admit, the ride to NPR was all downhill. I have yet to bike home.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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