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Metro to lure bike-to-rail commuters

By Ann Scott Tyson
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 11:41 PM

With packs on their backs, reflective neon straps around their ankles and sometimes even headlamps, they are the proud few who brave traffic, rainstorms and thieves to bicycle to Metrorail stations.

Bike-to-rail commuters represent 0.7 percent of Metrorail riders - compared with about 40 percent who drive, 33 percent who walk and 22 percent who take the bus to stations.

But Metro's long-range planners, desperate to avoid having to build 30,000 to 40,000 expensive parking spaces at stations to meet the projected surge in ridership over the next 20 years, have launched an initiative to quintuple the number of cyclists.

"It's very much strategic for us to put a really big focus on bicycle parking," said Kristin Haldeman, Metro's manager of access planning. Parking spaces cost on average $25,000 each, compared with $1,000 per space for a secured bike cage. "It's an extremely expensive proposition for us" to expand car parking, she said.

Bike riders say they are motivated to mount up each day by necessity, a desire to save time and money, or, in the case of Ryan Buchholz, guilt.

"I was telling my patients they had to exercise a half-hour a day," said Buchholz, 36, a physician who rides from his home in Falls Church to the East Falls Church Station.

The father of two decided a year ago that biking to Metro was the easiest way to fit a workout into his hectic day.

More than 90 cyclists park and ride each weekday morning at East Falls Church, which has the highest number of bike-to-rail commuters of Metro's 86 rail stations.

The Medical Center Station in Bethesda attracts the most bike riders in Maryland and is the top station in the transit system in the percentage of peak-period riders who cycle to the station - 7.1 percent.

Harley Frazis, 53, hops on a hybrid mountain/touring bike at his Bethesda condominium each morning to shave five minutes off his commute to the Medical Center Station. Frazis, a research economist at the Bureau of Labor, is a die-hard bike commuter who said the only thing that deters him is ice on the path.

"If there's intermittent rain, I'll sweat it out," he said.

In the District, the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station is the most popular with cyclists, drawing 61 during weekday morning peak periods.

Strapping on her helmet for a seven-minute ride from the station to her home in Mount Pleasant, Catherine Harrington said she bikes because there is no other convenient mode of transportation to reach the Red Line, which she takes to her job at the Women's Learning Partnership in Bethesda.

"It's a 25-minute walk," she said, so she bikes in order to sleep 15 minutes later in the morning.

Though their reasons for biking are different, Buchholz, Frazis and Harrington have all experienced what surveys show are the biggest frustrations of the pedaling crowd: Traffic dangers and theft.

Buchholz painfully recalled the day he had to ride home standing up after his bike seat was snatched. Frazis had two bikes stolen before he replaced his cable lock with a U-shaped metal bar lock. Harrington's last bike was stolen when she was living in New York City - so to discourage thieves, she rides a battered Peugeot bought on Craigslist.

All three voiced a strong interest in seeing more bike lanes and paths to make commuting safer.

Washington is "really lacking with the bike lanes," especially compared with New York, Harrington said.

To address those challenges and lure more cyclists, Metro plans to invest more than $11 million in projects to improve bicycle and pedestrian access to its rail stations through 2017.

Of that, $3 million would go toward replacing rapidly deteriorating bicycle racks and lockers. Metro plans to spend $8 million on expanding bicycle parking and improving connections to stations from communities.

Metro has 1,700 free racks, which can hold two bicycles each, and 1,270 key-operated lockers that rent for $200 a year. New racks are planned for high-ridership stations such as East Falls Church, Vienna, Braddock Road, Bethesda, Silver Spring, West Hyattsville, and Columbia Heights.

Metro also plans to try bike storage at the College Park station and will put in a new bike path at Vienna, said Nat Bottigheimer, director of Metro's Office of Long Range Planning. The College Park trial facility will consist of an enclosed room - secured with bars and monitored by closed-circuit video - with spaces for 80 bikes. Riders will use a SmarTrip card to access the storage area, he said.

Bottigheimer, an avid biker, said cycling to Metro offers many benefits. "It gives you a view of the city," he said, and besides, "it's energetic, fun and youthful."

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