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A two-wheeled street

Riders are first to board the 7:55 boat to Seattle. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Riders are first to board the 7:55 boat to Seattle.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Island bike commuters see a record turnout on the morning ferry.

Bainbridge bicycle riders broke the record ahead of schedule.

Packing their two-wheeled steeds along ferry railings, ramps, and walls, cyclists on Wednesday put more bikes on a commuter ferry than ever before. And they did it more than a week before this Friday’s annual Bike to Work Day.

“I counted 117 bikes, and that’s a record,” said Washington State Ferries Captain Ty Anderson. “Things are picking up. Biking’s getting big.”

While WSF keeps no official record of bike ridership, Anderson tallies up the number of bikes that board his boat. A usual commuter run might draw 40 or 50.

On summer days, that number sometimes swells into the high 90s. The combination of rising temperatures and gas prices may have boosted the bike numbers.

“Nothing like fine weather and $3.50 a gallon gas to increase our numbers,” said longtime bike commuter Chris Stanley.

Still, hitting 117 put a smile on Anderson’s face.

“It’s fun to think about how that probably took 117 cars off the streets,” he said.

That’s the point of Bike to Work Day, a national event now in it’s 13th year. Getting commuters out of cars and onto bikes cuts down on harmful tailpipe emissions, improves fitness, saves money, reduces traffic and frees parking, according to cycling advocates.

While the rate is growing, the vast majority of bikes sold in the United States are used for recreation rather than transportation. About 600,000 Americans – less than 1 percent of U.S. workers – bike to work regularly. That’s quite a bit lower than many other industrialized nations.

In Japan, 15 percent bike to work. In the Netherlands, over half of all commuters use pedal power. China, even with its growing rate of vehicle ownership, still boasts a daily bicycle commuter rate of over 70 percent.

While Bainbridge is no Beijing, it does appear to have more bike riders than nearby communities. Islanders hold over half of the ferry system’s 1,206 bike passes.

“Bainbridge is, by far, the largest group we have that uses bikes,” said WSF spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether, comparing the 739 passes owned by islanders to the 188 owned by Bremerton riders.

While WSF doesn’t count how often the passes are used, or how many cyclists board without a pass, Anderson has, over the last eight years, started each cross-sound run with a careful bike count.

Anderson does not simply volunteer to count cyclists for the pure pleasure of arithmetic. He is one of them.

A bike commuter for over 12 years, Anderson is quick to testify to his own conversion to cycle commuting, redemption from a culture steeped in petroleum and of his subsequent transformation.

“There’s no better exercise benefit than riding,” he said. “I dropped my cholesterol 40 points, I’m at 10.2 percent body fat and I’m in great aerobic shape.

“I’m 59, so that’s not bad for an old guy.”

Anderson didn’t become a virtual paragon of middle-aged fitness simply by riding 5 miles round-trip each day from his Eagle Harbor Drive home. But bike commuting provided the spark to get him going.

“I started riding to work and it was fun,” he said. “Then I was a scout troop leader and got some boys together for a mountain bike ride. I had a ball doing that, so I thought, ‘well, I’ll do the Chilly Hilly.’”

The annual Bainbridge ride led him to train for the popular 200-mile Seattle to Portland ride. Now Anderson puts in a weekly 150 miles on top of his commute.

He’s joined a weekend riding club and the state Department of Transportation commuter cycle team, which has logged more miles than any other in the state.

“It just keeps getting funner and funner,” he said.

Many others, he said, are discovering the joys of cycling to work.

“We used to have maybe 40 on a really nice, sunny day,” Anderson said. “Now we get bikes all year round, even when it’s icy.”

Not all the riders are spandex-clad with titanium bike frames.

“It’s also not just the ‘hard core,’” he said. “I also see more people in shirts and jeans.”

The growth of bicycles on ferries is, in part, due to WSF working with, rather than against cyclists.

“Bicyclists were treated as second class citizens for years,” said Anderson. “They’re no longer seen as pests. (WSF) understands that we’re committed to the most efficient way to move commuters and (accommodating bicyclists) is the most effective way of doing that.”

Island resident Kirk Robinson, who has commuted by bike and ferry for 18 years, said WSF has made recent strides – such as allowing for a cyclist loading period midway through the process of loading the auto deck – but much more could be done.

“(The state) should be out front and leading the charge of reducing congestion rather than building more lanes of freeway,” he said, calling for added incentives to encourage car drivers to become bike riders. But even today’s rate of use is forcing WSF to think of new ways to handle the island’s fleet of cyclists.

“We’re not increasing the number of passengers, but we are changing the way people commute,” Anderson said.

WSF has experimented with prototype bike hangers on the M/V Tacoma and Wenatchee. But building more than the four already installed has proved cost-prohibitive, said South Region Port Captain Pete Williams.

“Unless someone beats down the (state) Legislature’s door to get funding on this, we just don’t have the budget,” he said.

New ferries on the construction pipeline aren’t being built with bikes in mind.

“We asked (the builders) to make some considerations for bike racks, but these boats were designed before the bike craze,” he said. “Redrawing the plans is not easy to do.”

Riders currently hang their handlebars on ferry auto deck railings and line walls with bikes – but space is getting harder to find.

Williams wasn’t sure how WSF will deal with a ferry overloaded with bikes, but Anderson was willing to wager a guess.

“We’ll take car spaces,” he said. “We have to accommodate, and there will come a day when 300 bikes load on here.”

Robinson likes that prediction.

“I am hoping for that day when bicycles displace cars on the ferry deck,” he said. “That tells me that people are thinking in a ‘green’ sense – a responsible sense – on how to commute.”

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Friday ride-day

Friday is Bike to Work and School Day; see www.squeakywheels.org for more information.

See www.bainbridgereview.com to read the Review’s guide to the pedal-powered commute. The guide includes advice from local cycling experts on how to pick out a bike, gear up, ride safe and ride smart.

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