In rush-hour battle, the bike rolls on

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Pat Cunnane after arriving at the "Commuter Race" finish line yesterday. He did get a bit of help when cars were detoured off Spruce.

The bicyclist won.

No surprise there: Pit a bike, a car and a SEPTA bus against one another in a "commuter race" to Center City during rush hour, and the two-wheeler usually wins.

But yesterday's margin was unusually large: A mere 10 minutes and 49 seconds after the race's 8 a.m. start from 45th and Spruce Streets, bicyclist Pat Cunnane cruised to the finish line opposite City Hall.

"Perfect day for it!" he said, moments after dismounting.

The motorist showed up 10 minutes later; the straphanger 17 minutes after that.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia stages the annual race to publicize its assertion that a cyclist who commutes four miles or less in Philadelphia will arrive before other commuters.

Obviously, this is more advocacy than science. Messengers prove every day that the bike is king in Center City, while bicycles are not much of an option for those who commute in from much farther out, or who travel long distances between suburbs.

Still, more than 17,000 people around the region pedal to work every day on average, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. And commuting by bike, the bicycle coalition argues, is good for the cyclist (cheaper and healthier), good for the city (relieves traffic congestion), and good for the world (fewer greenhouse-gas emissions).

Cyclists normally have an edge over cars in congested downtowns: Bike lanes get them to the top of the queue at red lights; cars have to stay in line. Cyclists also have flexibility. Street blocked? Convert into a pedestrian and walk the bike.

Cunnane, president of Fuji Bicycles in Northeast Philadelphia, says he obeyed all traffic laws yesterday. What helped him win - other than a 16-mile warm-up ride from his Jenkintown home - is that cars were detoured off Spruce Street at 40th because students were moving out of their University of Pennsylvania dorms. Cyclists were allowed through.

Then again, the SEPTA rider - Jill Minick, a bicycle coalition staff member - got a break when her No. 42 bus pulled up just as the race started. And the motorist, PhillyCarShare's Heather Kemp, wasn't required to find parking in Center City. She just pulled up to the curb.

"We were being generous," insisted Alex Doty, the bicycle coalition's executive director.

Bikes have won three of the race's four years. The exception was 2005, during the SEPTA strike. Organizers subbed a taxi for the bus, and the contestant told the cabbie, "I'm in a race!"

As for the other benefits of bikes, the coalition calculates the dollar figures this way:

$300 for the cyclist (annual maintenance, and a new bike every three years).

$936 for the SEPTA rider (the cost of commuter TransPasses).

$10,943 for the motorist (American Automobile Association's average annual estimate for owning a car, plus $3,120 for Center City parking).

Health benefits are suggested by the San Francisco Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which offers an online calculator on its Web site (www.511.org).

A person weighing 145 to 174 pounds who cycles five miles at 12 to 14 m.p.h., for example, burns 215 calories, according to the site. It does not factor in data like 773 bicyclists killed in 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those, more than 60 percent were 25 or older; 88 percent were male. Most presumably were not commuters.

To be sure, "the street is a dangerous place," said Doty, whose organization teaches seminars on commuter-cycling safety. "But we tend to overestimate that danger on a bike and underestimate it in a car."

According to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a half-million adults age 16 or older within the nine-county region bicycle to work at least once a month. About 17,500 do so every day - with wide seasonal variations - traveling an average 5.5 miles and taking 28.6 minutes.

With the rise in gas prices and a corresponding spike in bicycle sales already recorded, the numbers may well increase.

Still, the region has a long way to go before matching Denmark and the Netherlands, where as many as 28 percent of all trips are on bikes.

Decades ago, "they were headed toward the same auto dominance we were," said John Madera, the DVRPC's senior transportation planner.

Then the Europeans instituted high fuel taxes. And "they planned their cities to give primacy to bike travel, not just to merely accommodate it."

Madera, who often commutes 16.8 miles from his Media home on his bike, says that if 10,000 people participated in Bike to Work Day this Friday, they would prevent 1.2 tons of vehicle pollutants from entering the atmosphere, and save roughly 100,000 vehicle miles.

Those figures, he says, are based on average commutes. Some other bicycle commuters like to show how far the envelope can be pushed.

John Boyle, who is, appropriately, the bicycle coalition's advocacy director, pedaled five minutes from his home in Burlington County's Edgewater Park to the River LINE yesterday. He folded the bike for the 30-minute train ride to Camden - and then cycled an additional 25 minutes over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Center City, noting the sun glinting off the river.

"Just a spectacular morning," Boyle said.

That, to Doty, illustrates commuter cycling's "most profound advantage." Practical benefits aside, he said, "if we had something to measure joy, the bicycle is going to win by leaps and bounds."

In all fairness, it must be noted that Minick, the SEPTA rider who placed third in the race, had a little bit of joy herself yesterday morning.

The ride took so long she was able to finish reading her Patricia Cornwell novel.


Bicycling to Work

Yesterday's race was part of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia's celebration of Bike-to-Work Week.

Related events

Bike films at International House (7 tonight).

Biking to the Phillies (6 p.m. tomorrow).

Bike-to-work event with Mayor Nutter (Philadelphia Museum of Art and other locations, 7:30 to 10 a.m. Friday).

For more information

Call 215-242-9253or go to www.bicyclecoalition.org


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.