February 18, 2015 News » Cover Story

Back in the saddle 

The Springs loves its bikes, but has few bike commuters. That could change.

In my adolescence, my best friends were two sisters, and our favorite thing to do was ride our bikes across Denver.

Often, we'd roll around Cherry Creek Reservoir in Aurora, and stake out singletrack trails veering off into the wooded open space. I once led one of the sisters down a promising trail only to get us lost in a swamp. There we were, carrying our bikes, black mud up to our necks, stranded. Every turn we took led us deeper into the mud.

By the time we got out and rinsed off in the res, we looked like we'd rubbed ourselves down with a whole bottle of fake tanner and forgotten our faces. The persistent mud stain didn't budge for close to a week.

That didn't discourage me.

I loved riding my bike.

I owned a car briefly in my teens, barely drove it, sold it when I was 18, and got around by bike (or bus). I crashed a few times, I got hit by cars, and there was rain and snow — but that still didn't justify buying a car, especially since I lived in bike-friendly Boulder. I kept mountain biking, too, often sneaking away to Moab on breaks. I even went bike touring down the West Coast and across the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

On that first tour, down the West Coast, I went with the other sister, the one I hadn't dragged through a swamp. We started in Olympia, Washington, and ended up just outside San Francisco, camping the entire way, carrying our gear in trailers, tucking into trackless wilderness most nights and usually traveling about 60 miles a day. She was 17, I was 19. This was our lives.

But when I was 23 and got my first job as a reporter, in the Springs, I was told I needed a car.

These days I'm a recreational cyclist. I've barely commuted by bike since 2003.

Until recently.

There's a "build it and they will come" dynamic in bike commuting. In the Springs, we either haven't built it, or we haven't completed it. Bike lanes and bike trails often dead-end, and whole parts of the city don't have many bike lanes or paths at all.

It can be tough to navigate this city by bike. And that, coupled with the city's sprawl, is likely why so few people commute by bike here.

The U.S. Census estimates that in 2013, a mere 0.7 percent of the Springs population commuted by bike. That puts us 38th among the 70 largest U.S. cities, according to the League of American Bicyclists. Compare that to Boulder, where more than 11 percent of the population commutes by bike, or even Denver, where it's 2 percent.

Every year, more people are doing it. From 1990 to 2013, according to the League, bike commuting grew by about 498 percent in Washington, D.C. (the biggest leap among cities), by about 129 percent in Denver, and by 44.7 percent in the Springs.

The League evaluates cities for bike-friendliness on a free, opt-in basis, and awards a status ranging from bronze to silver, gold, platinum and diamond, the highest.

Only four cities are diamonds, including Boulder and Fort Collins. Colorado Springs, like Denver, is a silver — at least until 2016, when the League comes back for a reevaluation. (The city was last evaluated in 2012.) City staffers are worried it could drop to bronze.

Ratings are based on what the League calls "the five Es": engineering, education, enforcement, encouragement and evaluation, along with outcomes. Colorado Springs has been working on improving in a lot of areas where it's done poorly, like educating motorists and evaluation of its bike plan.

But so far, the city's bombed on the outcomes. While the 44 percent growth previously mentioned may not sound bad, the Springs has gone from 0.5 percent of the city commuting by bike to 0.7 percent.

"D.C. in 1990 is where Colorado Springs is now," says Bill Nesper, vice president of programs for the League.

The irony is that Colorado Springs loves its bikes. While Boulder bans mountain bikers on most of its singletrack, the Springs has open space galore, with very few trails off-limits. Using a bike for sport is common here, whether it's a mountain bike, road bike, cross bike (a hybrid of a mountain and road bike), BMX bike, track bike or some other kind.

So with all these bikes around, why don't more people ride to work or the grocery store?

That's what I wanted to find out first-hand. How tough is it, really?

Marching into my editor's office on a Tuesday, I announced that I'd commute to work for the next three days, then write about what happened.

Bike commuting isn't just about bike commuting.

"We're able to see a direct correlation between economic development and bicycle and pedestrian improvements," Nester says. "There's a clear connection."

In an email to the Independent, Les Gruen, a state transportation commissioner, says he actually thinks that of all the unfunded road projects in the Springs, bike infrastructure may be the most critical.

"Perhaps the most important thing I believe we could undertake over the next 10 years to push Colorado Springs forward in the transportation arena would be the development of a more comprehensive regional bike/trail system," he writes. "A well conceived trail system would not only benefit current residents, make us more appealing to young professionals, but also is likely to attract tourism to our community, as an added bonus."

The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments is working on a Regional Non-Motorized Transportation Plan, and a study of the economic impacts of cycling in the region. SRAM, a bicycle components manufacturer with a development center in the Springs, is helping fund the impact study, and the nonprofit Trails and Open Space Coalition is assisting in an advisory role. No information is available yet.

But quite a few studies from other cities show that bicycle commuters spend more money at local businesses than car commuters. (See goo.gl/muT3TS and goo.gl/2cJerm for two examples.) And there are also signs that exercise saves businesses money. A small study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health in 2013 found that a group that exercised took less than half the sick days of a control group. (Interestingly, a separate group that meditated took even fewer.) And exercise is, of course, known to ward off major health issues like cardiovascular disease.

Biking instead of driving is also good for the environment. And while narrowing streets to accommodate bike infrastructure might frustrate some drivers, the Federal Highway Administration has found that reducing a four-lane road to three lanes and adding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure has major benefits. Not only does it make cyclists and pedestrians safer, it creates more parking and reduces rear-end and side-swipe vehicle crashes.

In one respect, getting all these benefits might not be that big of a challenge. A 2009 National Household Travel Survey, done by the League and by America Bikes, found that 40 percent of all trips made in the U.S. are two miles or less.

But of course, 60 percent of trips are over two miles — which is one of the things weighing on my mind on Tuesday night, when I begin going through my schedule.

I tutor kids for the Children's Literacy Project on Wednesdays, and the new semester is starting the next day. If I bike to work, that means I'll need to get off work downtown at 5:30, eat something at my desk, get all my biking gear on (my work clothes aren't exactly bike-friendly), and ride to Sand Creek Library by 6:30.

There are several problems with this, aside from the timing. First, I have no idea how to get to Sand Creek Library by bike, and I'm adept at getting lost.

But let's say I do find a route that travels some of the side streets to the library. It's going to be dark by the time I get on my bike.

I've never felt uncomfortable on the southeast side. I've tutored there for years, and most of the year, I'm there after dark. But I'm in a car. On the main streets. I don't know how I feel about being a woman alone on the dark back streets, especially since by the time I ride back it will be after 7:30.

And then there's my bike. I have a good lock, but it's not unbreakable and I really like my cross bike. I don't want to leave it unattended in the dark for that long.

All right, I think, I'll just do the commute on Thursday, Friday and Monday. That will work. Well, except for Friday. I get off at 5:30 and I need to be at a murder mystery theater at 7, near Hancock Avenue and East Fillmore Street. I live in Manitou Springs.

Hopping into my car Wednesday morning, I can't say I'm disappointed about missing the ride. Driving to work means I get to sleep later, and I'm not a morning person. And the weather isn't exactly friendly: The wind is frigid and cuts through my wool coat on the way to the car. Crossing the Colorado Avenue bridge, I spot a cyclist wrapped in spandex weather gear. He looks miserable.

Maybe it will be better tomorrow.

I could just need a little encouragement. After all, it is one of the "five Es."

I call a few local bike commuters and end up meeting Dave Nice near the Bijou bridge on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. Nice, otherwise known as "Fixie Dave," is riding home from his job at Borealis Fat Bikes.

He got his nickname because he rides a fixed-gear fat bike. It's a mountain bike with humongous tires meant to absorb shock and float in snow. You cannot coast on a fixie; you must keep pedaling while you're in motion and use your leg muscles to slow the pedaling in order to brake.

I've been standing out in the cold waiting for him for all of five minutes and my feet, in high heels, are about to freeze off, my fingers are numb, and I'm shivering. I get back in my car to wait. He arrives about a minute later.

Nice's last name is appropriate — he's a friendly guy with a big smile. He has a seizure disorder and has never been able to get a driver's license, so he rides pretty much everywhere, both out of necessity and for pleasure. He once rode from New Mexico to Alberta along the Continental Divide. He says his only real problem with commuting is that he'd rather be riding a trail.

He says his clothes keep him warm (he smiles and notes that mine probably don't), that the dead-end trails are a little annoying but he can get around them, and that people are friendly. Sometimes, he says, drivers are even a little too friendly — they often encourage him to run a four-way stop when he'd prefer to follow the law.

"What about potholes?" I ask.

"Part of the nice thing about the fat bike is the potholes aren't really a problem for me," he laughs.

I also call Stephanie Surch. She works with my husband at Criterium Bicycles, and she's on the Active Transportation Advisory Committee, which gives input to the city on pedestrian and bicycle-related infrastructure. She's also a volunteer with the Women's Mountain Bike Association of Colorado Springs (over 200 members strong) and on the board of the local nonprofit Kids on Bikes. She lives downtown, about seven miles from work, and commutes "about 75 percent of the time," as do most Criterium employees.

I ask her why she thinks more people don't commute by bike. She says a lot of people are scared to bike alone. The lack of trail connections is also a problem because a lot of people don't know their way around. And the roads can be intimidating — even she doesn't like riding the arterials, like Nevada Avenue. But she says she really hasn't had many negative experiences, and she loves getting a ride in. She thinks the main reason people don't bike to work is because, well, they don't.

"I think it's ... because it's not in our culture to do so," she says. "I think it's more convenient to drive. They just drive."

On Wednesday night, I prepare for my ride the next morning.

My husband puts panniers on my cross bike, with tools and extra inner tubes in one bag. I pick out office clothes and shoes for the next day and throw them in the other. I regret not leaving a wool coat and heels at the office — they're difficult to fit in the bag and I'm not keen on wearing a cycling jacket and cleats intended to hook into clipless pedals all day. Eventually, I'm able to cram it all in.

I go to sleep dreading the next day. What if it snows?

That night, I have an awkward dream that I'm all decked out in cycling clothes but driving a car. But when I wake up, I'm actually excited.

I head down Manitou Avenue and get on the Midland Trail. It ends abruptly near Columbine Road and I have to cross the street, ride through parking lots and catch the trail again near Ridge Road. At 25th Street, I take a back road when the trail ends again, then catch it after crossing 21st Street. That will take me all the way through America the Beautiful Park, but then I have to head up a road out of the park, get on Colorado Avenue, cross the bridge, take a right on Sahwatch Street and a left on Vermijo Avenue. A few blocks down, the Independent sits at Nevada and Vermijo.

It's warm, and there are few incidents that raise my ire. One guy honks at me while I'm rolling along the side of a sidewalk-less road, waiting to cross. Another driver fails to stop at a crosswalk. But I've come to expect these.

Overall, it's actually pleasant. But I see only one other bike commuter the entire way.

Most of the ride is a slight decline, and it's only about 5.8 miles, according to my Garmin. I ride it leisurely so as not to sweat, averaging just under 13 mph. It takes about 25 minutes. When I get to work, I change into my work clothes and note with satisfaction that my hair and makeup seem unaffected by my ride. My husband texts me mid-morning:

"Did you live? How's your hair?"

The smartass knows me.

The way home isn't much more of a challenge, though the dark areas on the trail are a little spooky, with only my bike light illuminating the way. Otherwise, I find I notice things I didn't before — like the way the lights on the Julie Penrose Fountain in America the Beautiful Park sparkle against a fuchsia sunset. The bike path takes you through a different world. I pass areas that smell of skunk, rusting junkyards, a man standing in the trees by the creek softly playing an acoustic guitar.

I'm startled a few times by people and dogs, but not scared. It helps that I'm mostly on a bike path, and I know the way well.

City bike program coordinator Brian Shevock and senior transportation planner Tim Roberts say that it's unlikely that someone like me would commute to work. To start with, my route is over five miles each way. Most people, they say, won't commute more than about two to five miles each way. And the breaks in the trail system are also a problem for most people.

They're finishing a new bike master plan for the city. The aim is to fill gaps, create logical bike routes that go to key locations, and connect the routes. The main way to do this is to ensure that all routes eventually lead back to the Pikes Peak Greenway (otherwise known as the Santa Fe Trail), the city's most popular trail, which, with connecting trails, runs from Fountain to Palmer Lake and Monument.

A new bridge will soon be put in to connect a trail along 31st Street with the Midland Trail. That weird gap near Columbine Road I have to cross will be an underpass when that section of Manitou/Colorado Avenue is rebuilt, likely in 2017. Cucharras Street is going to be transformed into a "bike boulevard." (See "Whose lane is it anyway?")

Money for bike infrastructure isn't steady, but there's a big influx in 2015. One reason is the new voter-approved, extension of the sales-tax funded Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority. The PPRTA's on-street bike improvements budget for 2015 is $411,970, part of a beefed-up allotment that will provide at least $3 million for on-street bike improvements over the next 10 years. The PPRTA will also fund urban trail projects over the next 10 years, including $1.1 million that will go to the Pikes Peak Greenway this year. Compare that to the old PPRTA, which provided between $112,000 and just under $126,000 a year for on-street bike improvements from 2012 to 2014.

The voter-approved, sales-tax funded Trails and Open Space tax also provides about $1.2 million for trails annually. The city has an excise tax on bike sales that's expected to raise $97,550 this year, all of which will go to bike infrastructure like lanes and signs. And the city seeks grants and federal money, which can add hundreds of thousands more dollars.

Shevock and Roberts say the city is often able to save money on trail and lane projects by tagging along on road, bridge, utilities, bus and stormwater projects — though those can be a double-edged sword because they can also delay bike projects for years. (Also worth noting is that trails often need to cross private land or railroad crossings, and getting permission to use the land can be tricky.)

Currently, the two are working on a wayfinding system — wherein signs are posted at "decision points" along bike routes to tell a rider which way to go to get to key destinations. They're also adding bike racks, a simple move that can encourage riding, and sticking QR codes on racks and signs. Riders can scan the codes with their smartphones and connect to a city website that lists events, safety information, a reporting system for "near misses" with cars (see "Staying safe,"), and most importantly, a bike route map.

Chris Lieber, park development manager and TOPS program manager, says that in addition to a new bikes master plan, the city just finished a parks master plan. While Shevock and Roberts are focused on filling gaps in bike lanes and street routes, Lieber is focused on trails, and he rattles off a long list of gaps that have been filled in the last year, or will be filled next year. He says he also wants to complete two bike path loops around the city, one small and one large, and build a bike park with skills features for mountain bikers and BMX riders that's similar to Valmont Bike Park in Boulder.

"The mountain bike side of cycling, and the BMX side of cycling and the free-ride side of cycling, really are looking for additional challenges beyond what I would call cardiovascular challenges or distance challenges," Lieber says.

Part of the push for new kinds of biking opportunities has come from Medicine Wheel, a nonprofit that advocates for, and builds and maintains mountain bike trails locally. President Cory Sutela says the group has been doing work all over the city, and was highly involved in advocating for trails as the city put together its master plans for parks and bikes. Among the projects it pushed for is the bike park idea and the recent acquisition of new open space adjacent to Ute Valley Park, which will include cycling trails.

Sutela says he's hoping to see more extreme downhill trails in that new open space, and there are some planned. He's also working with Manitou Springs on planning the new Iron Mountain property, which he hopes will also feature more technical trails.

"Mountain bikers," he says, "are less of a fringe element [than they used to be]. We're big enough that we can't be denied a seat at the table."

Friday is one of those winter days that we like to brag about in Colorado.

I'm so warm on my ride to work that I'm in danger of getting sweaty, and have to stop to shed layers. I plan on getting to work a little early, with high hopes that I can leave early. I need to ride home and still make that 7 p.m. event.

I don't see a single bike commuter on the way to work, though there are a few people out walking their dogs, and several pairs of homeless people strolling quietly down the trail. The creek is beautiful in the morning light, and I find myself smiling.

The ride only takes me about 10 minutes longer than my usual drive, and when I arrive at work, I feel clear-headed and ready for the day. I realize that driving usually leaves me aggravated and tired, though I had never noticed it before.

I'm actually able to cut out of the office an hour earlier than usual in the evening, so that I can ride home in time to get to my other obligations. It's still light out when I leave, and I notice kids are running around the playgrounds, and more people are strolling the parks or walking their dogs along the trail than the night before. The ride is easy, and I'm home before I know it.

As I glide into Manitou, I pass a herd of deer grazing in a sports field where a soccer ball sits abandoned.

It's so serene, so peaceful. Why did I ever give this up?

Many of us have fond memories of childhood bike rides — circling the neighborhood with friends, exploring, soaking in the sunshine.

Daniel Byrd of Kids on Bikes says his organization wants to give today's kids a chance to make those same memories. Founded 10 years ago, the nonprofit has a number of programs, including one that allows kids in low-income schools to earn a new bike by completing a 10-week educational program. There are also summer camps, group rides that include parents, safety classes, block parties, repair clinics and more. The objective is to raise a new generation of cyclists who know how to get around the city safely and can find joy and health through cycling as they grow up.

"We're creating bike ambassadors for the future," Byrd says.

Kids on Bikes is just one of a dizzying array of nonprofits, organizations, businesses and individuals that are organizing rides, races, get-togethers, classes and events for the bike community. Let's just say that if the city is having trouble convincing people to get on their bikes, it isn't because the community isn't passionate about it. I was provided with dozens of names and numbers for people and organizations that are regularly working to build the local bike culture. If you're interested in cycling — or any aspect of cycling — there's a group or ride out there for you. Usually it's best to ask your local bike shop about the options.

Take Jon Severson. He works mostly from home, running organizations for young professionals, but he also works in the bike business on the side, and he's the guy responsible for building the city's new urban singletrack that runs along the Pikes Peak Greenway in downtown (see SimpliCity, Aug. 13, 2014). One of the inspirations for those trails, which he hopes to soon expand with further help from the city's parks department, was the desire to get more people out riding. And the trails have attracted some unlikely users, from friends of his who had bikes collecting dust in their garages to a group ride by Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Severson lives near the Greenway, and commuted on it for about seven years. He says he sees more people apparently commuting on it these days. He thinks even more people would if they realized that the city already has a decent urban trail system, much of which is reasonably flat.

"I think some of it is just letting people know what we do have in town," he says.

There are people trying to do that. Both the city and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs received grants from Kaiser Permanente for 2014-15, for $100,000 and $35,000, respectively, with the aim of getting more people to walk or bike. Among other things, the city used its grant to reach out to businesses and organizations and encourage non-motorized commuting, as well as to expand events like the annual Bike to Work Day. UCCS used much of its grant to expand events and programs, such as one that gives freebies like bike lights and backpacks to employees and students who log a lot of commuting miles and days. It's also planning a trail that will allow bike commuters to get up the hill on Austin Bluffs Parkway to the university while avoiding traffic.

"We're really looking at promoting active transportation as a means of wellness," says Andrea Hassler, the university's trails coordinator.

Hassler is also hoping to help people overcome roadblocks that may prevent them from riding. For instance, UCCS recently expanded its bike share program, basically a cheap, easy bike rental service. (City Councilor Jill Gaebler is hoping to get a similar program started for the city, likely in and around downtown, and has a proposal for a feasibility study, the first step to get the project going.)

Last fall, the university held its first "Beat the Hill" event — intended to demonstrate that the hill to the University isn't the monster it seems. Students and employees raced on bikes from the bus stop at the bottom of the hill to the bus stop at the top of the hill, where the campus sits. The average time for 30 people was about eight minutes.

It takes the bus eight to 12 minutes to get up the hill.

On Saturday, I ride with my husband to his work, near Rockrimmon Boulevard and Interstate 25.

It's a Saturday tradition for us, especially when the weather is warm. From Manitou Springs, we ride the road through Garden of the Gods Park to the Foothills Trail, which follows 30th Street north. Just before Garden of the Gods Road, we duck onto the back roads that weave behind large office buildings and through parking lots, and then connect to the start of the Sinton Trail. The Sinton takes us east and connects to the Pikes Peak Greenway, which takes us north to Criterium.

The weather is warm and the scenery beautiful on the way there. But on the way back, a strong headwind has kicked up and I start to feel like I'm biking under water, barely inching up the hill on the Sinton Trail. What's more, my head is stuffy, which I blame on seasonal allergies.

By Sunday, though, it's clear that I'm sick, and Monday is no better. I'm laid up in bed, in no shape to go to work, let alone complete my three-day commuting challenge. I'm a little disappointed.

I suppose there are all sorts of reasons why most people don't commute by bike. The truth is, even when I'm well, bicycle commuting isn't usually an ideal way for me to get around. I have appointments, often across town, often at the last minute.

But I'm beginning to think that my mistake has been buying into an all-or-nothing philosophy. I don't have to ride to work when I'm sick, or when I have an appointment on the north end of town, or when it's polar-vortex freezing outside. That's why I have a car. On the other hand, when it's a quiet day at the office, and the sun is shining, and I long to be outside, my bike will be ready and waiting for me. Maybe I could ride it to work two days a week, or even two days a month.

Maybe we all could do that.

The city's Shevock says he's hopeful that a change is already taking place. There are so many events happening, so many people fighting to make this a bike town, and lately they seem to be making a difference.

"It's kind of neat to see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together," he says. "I was out Sunday, and it was amazing to see all the people out riding."

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