When it comes to bicycle commuting in cities, Americans are earning their training wheels.
City bridges are often off-limits to bicycles, and clogged roadways can hinder all but the most dedicated cyclists. But some cities in the United States and Canada have moved recently to give bicycle riders access to mass transit.
The ability to take a bicycle onto city subways and buses is important because urban bikers can cover great distances quickly while avoiding potholes and heavy traffic.
One city that accommodates bicycle commuters very well is San Francisco. The city's advanced subway system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), allows bicycles on all trains except during peak hours on weekdays (6:30 to 9:00 a.m. and 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.), according to Alice Delgado, a spokeswoman for BART.
Each train can carry up to seven bicycles. They must be brought onto the last car, and they require a special permit. BART has issued about 8,000 of the $3 permits, which are good for three years.
San Francisco has solved the peak-hour problem for cyclists commuting to work across the Oakland Bay Bridge, with a shuttle service. During weekday rush hours , when the subway doesn't allow bicycles, CalTrans, a state agency, provides a van that can carry 12 riders with their bicycles. The cost to passengers is only 25 cents.
The Washington, the New York-New Jersey (PATH), and Atlanta rapid transit systems all offer some access to cyclists, but compared with BART, access is considerably restricted.
''(US and Canadian) cities are built for cars,'' rather than for bikes, says Bob Silverman of Le Monde a Bicyclette in Montreal. Bridges in Montreal, for example, were designed for and restricted to automotive traffic. Cyclists thus had no way of getting across the St. Lawrence River. Cyclists with permits may now use the Montreal subway system on weekends.
Massachusetts state government is studying the possibility of a bike-subway program in Boston.
But for commuter cycling to increase, Mr. Silverman says, it is essential that cities have a network of bike paths ''and not just along the river or by the railroad tracks. That's not enough. We need inner-city paths.'' Employer encouragement, including work-place showers and changes in dress codes, would be a boon, he says.
Silverman's group participated in the organization of the recent International Bicycle Day, and he says there is growing interest around the world in the merits of commuting by bicycle, partly because of its fuel-saving and nonpolluting characteristics.
In addition to allowing mass-transit systems to carry bicycles, Cathy Buckley of the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition says city planners in the US should consider making it possible for commuters to cycle to a mass-transit stop, store their bicycles there, and take a bus or train to work. This, she notes, would require safe routes to the stops and some means of safely storing the vehicle.
Part of the problem in Boston, as in other cities, is crossing bridges. According to cyclist David Harris, to get from East Boston (where Logan International Airport is located) to Boston across the inner harbor, one has to cycle about five miles through three or four communities because the direct routes (bridge, underwater tunnel, or subway) are closed to bikes. Cathy Buckley says this makes it hard on cyclists flying into the airport, particularly those unaware of the city's restrictions.
One of the most progressive cities in the US in accommodating bicyclists is Seattle, where some 50 miles of trails, lanes, and special streets have been set aside for cyclists. Here, too, bicycles are not allowed on bridges spanning Lake Washington, but several of Seattle's metro bus services provide bicycle racks on their vehicles. The buses stop at designated areas for the loading and unloading of bikes. (A number of other US cities now offer this service as well.)
According to Joshua Lehman, Seattle's bicycle coordinator, several thousand cyclists commute in Seattle daily - some 10,000 to 20,000 in fair weather - and he says more people would consider cycling to work if they were made aware of it as a commuting option.