More And More Americans Are Getting In Shape On Their Way To Work — Here's Why You Should Too

It's bike-to-work week, why not give it a spin?

Ever since Ben Russell started biking to work, he has greatly appreciated being spared the aggravation of getting pulled into the labyrinth of the the New York City subway system.

"It's just very unpleasant to ride the subway," he says, and so replacing the stress of that with a hearty workout, not to mention all the time and money saved, is an ideal solution.

Russell is among a growing number of Americans who have become bike commuters in recent years. According to a census report released last year, the number of people who get to work this way has increased 60% since 2000, while in New York City, which boasts the largest population of riders nationwide, that number has doubled since 2009. As encouraging as those figures are, though, bike commuters still make up a mere 1% of the commuting population, both in the US and New York City, still way behind the country's leaders, which include: Portland (6%), Washington DC (4.5%) and San Francisco, where nearly 4% of residents bike to work.

Daniel Krieger
Daniel Krieger

For anyone interested in getting on this bandwagon, this is your chance: it's National Bike to Work Week, culminating this Friday with Bike to Work Day, which was created in 1956 when the League of American Bicyclists, the country's oldest cycling advocacy organization, set up National Bike Month. Andy Clark, the president, says he anticipates that this year several hundred thousand riders around the country will participate, with about 20,000 in Washington DC alone, where the League is based.

"This is a great time for people to get out there and give it a shot," he says, "especially in the company of others, particularly others who have been doing it for a while." (Some workers have made their daily commute communal, forming groups that ride together in what's known as a "bike train.")

Ben Russell, a 49-year-old photographer and instructor of photography, got into it three years ago after taking up cycling for exercise. A native New Yorker, he recalls how dangerous cycling in the city used to be. But with several hundred miles of recently installed bike lanes, "it's definitely better to ride a bike today," he says, noting that as bike conditions steadily improve, the subway actually seems to be getting worse, with more passengers and delays. "I know that I can get there on time with my bike, whereas with the train you never know what's going to happen." (And thanks to the Bicycle Access Law, passed by the City Council in 2009, landlords must allow bikes in office buildings.)

On his Raleigh Tripper 3 speed, Russell rides from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, to downtown Manhattan several times a week, which takes about 30 minutes, much less than the subway. The trick, he says, is to keep your cool, be vigilant of cars and pedestrians, who tend to stand in bike lanes, and make sure your bike has durable tires.

Daniel Krieger
Daniel Krieger

There is something of a learning curve, however, and to provide potential bike commuters with the know-how to pull it off safely and efficiently, an organization called Bike New York offers Bike Commuting 101, a free 90 minute class.

"We cover the gamut of things you need to consider if you want to start making bike commuting part of your life," says Samuel Slaton, director of communications, who himself rides to work 26 miles round-trip three times a week, "which can be an incredibly liberating and invigorating mode of transportation."

All you need to get going is the right equipment and knowledge, including quick drying clothes, lights, a bell, a sturdy bike and familiarity with the best route. He chalks up the dramatic increase in ridership in recent years in part to the expanded bike infrastructure, which must have had something to do with New York being named the most bike-friendly city in the country by Bicycling Magazine last year. There's still a long way to go, he concedes, and encouraging more people to try is their perpetual aim. 

"The streets are yours already," he says, "you just need to know how to use them."

Daniel Krieger
Daniel Krieger

One New Yorker, Evan Brown, 46, discovered this when he began commuting to work on his bicycle daily seven years ago. "It was about freeing myself from public transit and taking advantage of the infrastructure that New York has in place," he says. The bus and subway trip that took almost an hour to get from Elmhurst, Queens, to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he works as the director of communications at a private school, takes him 35 minutes by bike. All he has to do, he says, is go slow enough to ride defensively, stay vigilant for things that might go wrong, and stick with the bike lanes. Before, he had trouble fitting exercise into his day; now, he has a daily workout that improves the quality of his day.

When Brown tells people about this, they often seem surprised, believing the increasingly outdated notion that it's hazardous to ride in the city. But if you ride smart, a little practice and confidence can go a long way, he explains. 

"Once you get the confidence," he says, "the city is your oyster."

Cover image by Daniel Krieger