Have bike, will travel by rail

By Alexia Campbell
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

June 24, 2008

Brad Whidden figures he saves $65 a month on gas by riding his bike and taking the train to work in Fort Lauderdale.

The 44-year-old emergency medical technician from Deerfield Beach says the exercise and environmental benefits also are good, even if leaving his car at home adds an hour and a half to his commute.

“I don’t have to sit in traffic; my car doesn’t have to sit in the sun,” said Whidden, who started riding his bike about 30 miles a week to work a few months ago.

Whidden is part of a growing number of cyclists that Tri-Rail and bus officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties have noticed coming aboard recently. Fuel costs are a big reason, Tri-Rail spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said.

“Where you used to see two to three bikes in a [rail] car, now you see six to seven,” Arnold said.

In May, more than 68,000 bikes were loaded onto Broward buses, an increase of nearly 6,000 since March, according to Broward County Transit. The agency did not have comparable numbers on bike ridership for 2007.

Palm Beach County buses also are packed with bike riders, although the numbers aren’t tracked, Palm Tran spokeswoman Liliane Agee said.

Ralph Cunningham, 55, started riding his bike to work years ago to stay healthy. Now, the high gas prices are what motivate him to leave his Chevy Blazer behind at his Oakland Park home.

On weekdays, Cunningham bikes eight miles and rides Tri-Rail to the church where he works in maintenance and food service.

Cunningham said the number of bike commuters on Tri-Rail jumped around the time gas prices hit $3 a gallon.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get on here now,” he said.

Several local bike shops have seen business shift from recreation cycling to the more practical type.

Steve Moses, owner of George’s Cycle Shop in Fort Lauderdale, says business climbed about 20 percent in the last month. He attributes the jump to people bringing in old bikes for repairs.

“People have a bike in their garage and pull it out,” he said. “They want to get it back in shape to run local errands and what not.”

Downtown Bicycles in Fort Lauderdale also is getting more customers looking to use bikes as transportation, according to owner Mario Aponte.

However, the torrid South Florida weather doesn’t make riding a bike all the way to work realistic for many, he said. More people are coming to his store to buy racks, baskets and other accessories to run errands close to home.

Bret Baronak, of the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization, says the growing stream of bicyclists he sees in the morning is mostly made up of commuters. They carry backpacks and lunch bags, he said. Yet most people still aren’t desperate enough to switch their car wheels for bike wheels, he said.

“We’re at the point where we need to go another dollar more on the price of gas before it becomes really critical,” he said. “But we’re really in the red zone now.”