COMMENTARY: Bikes on the Rails

Making Room for Bikes on Trains (and Everywhere Else)

Traveling across Connecticut during rush hour can be beastly. During a typical afternoon on Interstate 95, cars crowd the road, crawling along at 30 miles per hour or less. Drivers, often solo and on cell phones, dangerously crisscross the lanes and slam on brakes, just to nose a few inches ahead. All the while, they waste fuel and spew dirty emissions. Traffic is not only an inconvenience, but also a symptom of our fuel dependence and environmentally irresponsible behavior. But what are the alternatives?

Biking to work can reduce one"s carbon footprint and help de-clutter the highways.© Getty Images

Recently, a group of concerned citizens have been trying to ease the way for a bicycle-friendly form of train transportation. Biking to work can reduce one’s carbon footprint and help de-clutter the highways. And the distance one bikes to work can be extended when used in conjunction with a commuter rail service. Transportation Alternatives, a New York City-based nonprofit group working to promote bicycling, walking and public transit, advocates this combination, citing that it is often faster, cheaper and more environmentally sound than driving.

Bicycle commuters traveling on the Metro-North line between New York and its suburbs have been hampered by cumbersome regulations. In order to bring a bicycle on a Metro-North train, one must have a bicycle permit. This regulation alone discourages potential commuters. In addition to the permit regulation, bicycles are not allowed on trains during peak hours, obviously the most convenient for commuters en route to work. Finally, many of the cars on the Metro-North line have minimal bicycle parking and storage, limiting the number of bicycles allowed per car. All of these regulations work to discourage bicycle commuting.

At a recent Metro-North Commuter Council meeting, Richard Stowe and other members of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council circulated petitions advocating the deregulation of bicycle travel on trains. Although most of the issues are still pending, there was discussion of removing the bicycle permit requirement. Another issue that the Council plans to address is the safety and convenience of bringing a bicycle on the Metro-North trains. Some argue that bringing bicycles on trains is dangerous to other passengers and may crowd and inconvenience an otherwise smooth commute. Stowe argues that designated bike parking would eliminate the safety concern and help integrate bikes into the daily commute. The Commuter Council’s strategy is to persuade Metro-North to include bicycle parking on its new train cars (which are slated to begin service in 2009).

America by Bike

The movement to promote bicycle commuting in conjunction with train travel is growing all over the nation, but fighting for bicycles remains a guerrilla action in car-crazy America. While the U.S. has the highest per-capita bicycle ownership in the world, according to the League of American Bicyclists, automobiles are used for more than 95 percent of our trips. Only three million Americans say they ride their bikes "frequently," meaning more than 14 or 15 times a year. According to Alex Campbell, a spokesperson for leading electric bicycle maker Zap, as many as 120 million bikes sit forlornly on flat tires, waiting for riders. In the U.S., bicycles are overwhelmingly used for recreation and exercise, not for commuting.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition fights for urban pathways, encouraging traffic-calming policies and lobbying on behalf of bike-friendly legislation. "Providing safe streets for bicyclists is like making a grant of $420 (a year’s worth of bus passes) to thousands of people with limited incomes," the group proclaims. "That would improve the quality of life for the one-third of San Francisco households who do not have access to a car."

A row of bike taxis parked on a curb in San Diego, CA.© Getty Images

San Francisco is also home to a monthly event called Critical Mass, in which thousands of bicycle riders take to the streets, many of them in colorful costumes. "We wanted to celebrate the bike and dominate the streets for a change," said one spokesman for the loosely organized group. Police broke up a 5,000-strong Critical Mass ride in 1997, and arrested 100 people for blocking traffic, but there were ultimately no convictions. In 1999, state judge Sue Kaplan ruled that the arrests were illegal, and Critical Mass has operated without harassment since then.

People are finding innovative uses for bicycles. Joan Stein and Jim Gregory own and operate the pedal-power Fresh Aire Delivery Service in the small town of Ames, Iowa. Fresh Aire has transported furniture, lumber, even a children’s playhouse. No less than two bicycle delivery services were launched in Berkeley, California, run by Pedal Express and Berkeley Youth Alternatives.

The Colorado-based Bicycle Transportation Systems (BTS) has an idea that makes a crazy kind of sense, combining pedal power with an innovation in mass transit. It’s a kind of two-way tunnel in which bike riders are pushed along by a constantly moving column of air, reducing air resistance and allowing speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. The company claims its system is 90 percent more efficient than normal cycling, and bikers can travel six miles with the energy it would otherwise take to travel one. The system can reportedly be used to move freight as well as bike riders, but it would require an expensive and fully enclosed dedicated bikeway. Only a city intensely dedicated to bicycle transportation would even think of building such a corridor.

Bike racks are sprouting up all over. According to the International Bicycle Fund, 3,000 have recently been installed in Santa Cruz, California, and 1,600 in Seattle. In Portland, I saw some ingenious bike lockers, which make the enclosed bicycle nearly impossible to steal.

Perhaps it says something about America that our anti-car campaigns are couched in the positive rhetoric of encouraging the open-air sport of bicycling. Like motherhood, bicycling is very hard to oppose, even though our traffic regulations discriminate regularly. The rock band bicycle (with a small "b"), led by bike activist Kurt Liebert, toured from Portland, Maine, to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2000 entirely by bike.

Bikes on a ferry.

If we want to tackle our fuel dependence and carbon emissions head-on, we need to encourage the responsible use of public transportation on a national scale. Back in Connecticut, Stowe spoke of a movement to convince Congress to implement a high-speed rail service from coast to coast, as well as another line stretching across the Southern regions of the U.S.

If this is achieved, shorter high-speed rail corridors and commuter rail lines would easily feed off these larger lines, making train travel more accessible and efficient across the nation. Stowe predicts that this will have a positive effect on the fuel dependence and energy waste engendered by suburban sprawl.

So where do we go from here? In terms of the local struggle, Stowe suggests contacting New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell to advocate the removal of bicycle permits and restrictions during peak hours. Reducing our carbon footprint can start at the individual level, but in the end, it requires a greater structural change. A solution may be found in improving access for both bicycle commuters and their non-biking counterparts on the railways.

CONTACT: National Association of Railroad Passengers

JULIA HIRSCH is a student at Vassar College and an intern at E.
JIM MOTAVALLI is the editor of E.