On most mornings, Ken Schantz starts his 70-mile commute at 4:20 a.m. It takes him two hours 40 minutes to travel 35 miles from his home near Mount Vernon to his office in Rockville. He loves every minute of it.
That’s because he leaves his car at home.
Schantz, 62, travels by bike and sometimes rail. Occasionally, he tosses a bus ride or two into the mix.
He knows driving would cut his commute time by more than half, but what fun would that be?
“It can be 40 degrees in the middle of winter or 90 degrees in the middle of summer — but I am the happiest when I’m out there turning the pedals,” he said.
It’s one thing to get from Point A to Point B without a car in Washington — a relatively compact 68.3 square miles. But navigating the region’s far-flung suburbs — never mind crossing through two counties and the District — offers an entirely different challenge. Doable certainly, but not for the faint of heart.
“That beats any commute I’ve done,” said Mark Plotz, senior associate and program director for the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.
Schantz joins a growing number of workers who have abandoned their cars in favor of bus, rail and bike for their daily commutes. Solo drivers still dominate the ranks of D.C. area commuters, but according to an analysis by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the number of regular bike commuters in the D.C. region increased by about 11,000 between 2000 and 2011. The uptick is largely fueled by people who live and work in the District. But bike commuting also has increased in popularity in other jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, which opened more than a dozen Capital Bikeshare stations last month.
Experts say that cycling undoubtedly will continue to grow in the District, Arlington County and other close-in areas, but how much growth there will be in suburban, auto-dependent neighborhoods such as Schantz’s remains to be seen. Although government and private investors are spending billions to remake areas including Tysons Corner and White Flint, those communities are years away from becoming the pedestrian-friendly meccas their boosters hope for.
But million-dollar investments in wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and bike- and car-sharing stations are paying off not only in the D.C. region, but also in places one wouldn’t necessarily consider bike-friendly — among them Indianapolis, Memphis and Springfield, Ark., said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning and public policy at Rutgers University and co-author of “City Cycling.”
Although the numbers remain small, there was a 9 percent jump between 2011 and 2012 in the number of people who said they commute by bicycle, according to recently released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. About 865,000 people said they biked to work in 2012.
Much of the increase in bike commuting is among millennials, but other generations, including baby boomers, are increasingly recognizing the health benefits, Pucher said.
“Driving is sort of an addiction. People get so used to it, they don’t think of doing anything else,” he said. “Then you have these special events. You get on a bike for the first time and think, ‘Hey, that’s fun.’ ”
Even employers have gotten into the act, installing showers, bike racks and changing rooms for workers. Many companies also offer subsidies for Metro. Schantz is one such beneficiary: His employer picks up the tab for his Metro fare, and there are facilities at work where he can shower before settling in at his desk.
Schantz, tall and lanky with an easy grin, did not come to biking naturally. He grew up in a rural community in Caro, Mich., where tractors outnumbered buses. During his years working for Ford Motor Co., he drove as many as 50,000 miles a year calling on dealers along Maryland’s Eastern and Western shores. Up until a few years ago, he commuted just as the vast majority of Washingtonians did: sitting in a car, listening to traffic reports on WTOP.
But in 2008, he decided he wanted a change, and biking, which he’d done as a hobby after foot problems forced him to give up running, seemed like the most fun alternative.
“Once you do it, you start to remember what it’s like to be out there riding,” he said. “Once you figure out it’s possible to repeat, it is so much easier.”
Most days he’s up at 3:35 a.m. His breakfast of choice is a three-egg cheese omelet accompanied by a bowl of fruit (the coffee comes later). It’s dark when he leaves his home near Mount Vernon in the Hybla Valley section of Fairfax County around 4:20 a.m.
Of the 70 miles he does each day, it’s the first one he dreads most.
“You’re not warmed up, your body’s not working and you’re figuring you’ve got 34 more to go,” he said of his 35-mile trek to work.
But then it all kicks in. His favorite point is the Capital Crescent Trail near Georgetown, a wooded section that runs by a river. Best of all, it’s all downhill — “a dream,” he said.
This particular day, he gets a bit of a break because he’s doing a combination bike-Metro commute, so he rides seven miles along darkened side streets to catch a Yellow Line train at the Huntington Metro station. He arrives just after the station manager has unlocked the gates.
He takes the train to Gallery Place, where he transfers to the Red Line. It’s about 5:30 a.m. when he steps onto the platform, more cheerful and awake than anyone should be at that hour. And that’s despite the previous day’s difficult commute home through torrential rain, which left him drenched but undaunted.
“Because you’re so maneuverable and mobile, nothing can stop you,” he said.
Outfitted in a neon yellow jacket and a bike helmet, with a backpack slung over one shoulder and a bike hiked up on the other, he is impossible to miss. Once upstairs, he boards an eight-car Red Line train and positions his bike just so.
“This is the hard part — finding a seat where you can hold onto your bike,” he said.
The commute has been good for his waistline and for his mind. He has lost 25 pounds, and riding on Metro has given him the time to power through dozens of titles on his Kindle. His current selection is “Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence,” by John Ferling.
He arrives at White Flint around 6:10 a.m. and takes a slight detour, popping into a Starbucks to pick up a grande drip coffee (he’s partial to the bold roast). The barista greets him with a grin. Outside, Schantz climbs back onto his bike and takes his first sip.
He’ll nurse the coffee for the remaining three miles of his ride, draining the last drop just as he hits the parking lot of his office on Tower Oaks Boulevard, where he works as an IT contractor for Geico.
At the office, he showers and changes clothes.
At 3 p.m., he’ll do it all in reverse.
Not everyone in the Schantz family shares his enthusiasm for riding. Schantz’s wife and two college-age daughters prefer driving, although his wife recently proposed a bike trip in France. On a recent 2 ½-week family trip to Kenya, Schantz took in the sights (giraffes, hyenas, wildebeests), but found himself itching to get back on his bike.
“I’m addicted,” he said.
Last year, Schantz rode 8,500 miles, the rough equivalent of a round trip to Berlin (or a one-way trip to the Philippines). About
70 percent of those miles were commute-related. He owns four bikes but rotates between two — a modified road bike and a touring bike — for his daily commute. He has put about 25,000 miles on the road bike in the six years he’s had it.
Schantz readily acknowledges that not everyone has the stamina or time to put into a commute like his. It’s easier now that he’s an empty nester: He dropped his youngest daughter off at college last month. Still, given the choice, he’d rather spend the time on a bike than in a car.
“I was sitting at my desk, and the guy over the cubicle wall was talking about his morning commute and how miserable it was,” Schantz recalled. “He comes from Loudoun. It takes him two hours, and I’m thinking it took me two hours, I finished a book, started another one and got in an hour worth of exercise.”
Not bad for one day’s commute, eh?