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Despite high gas prices, bicycle sales haven't taken off

POSTED: July 6, 2008 5:01 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Kelly Parham of Northstar Bicycles points out one of the features that makes the Electra Townie easy for commuting. The sprocket location in relation to the seat makes the bike easier to peddle.

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As the price of gasoline continues to climb, sales of both motorcycles and motorized scooters have increased in Hall County.

But sales of the only vehicle that uses no fuel at all — the human-powered bicycle — have remained essentially flat.

"Our roads (in Hall County) are not conducive to riding to work on bicycles," said Mike Bennett, owner of Adventure Cycles on Mundy Mill Road. "We need more bike lanes. We need more signs for sharing the road, more driver education (about bicycles). Local government needs to get involved."

But it’s not just Hall. Many North Georgia communities are not bike-friendly.

"Atlanta is ranked one of the worst cities in terms of bicycle commuting," Bennett said.

And that’s unfortunate, because if more people rode bikes, it could help Atlanta address two of its biggest problems: traffic congestion and air pollution.

David Crites, executive director of Georgia Bikes, a nonprofit advocacy group, said one of the issues is Atlanta’s suburban sprawl, which forces residents of metro Atlanta to commute further than just about anyone else in the country.

"The ideal bike commute is two to eight miles," he said. "So the commutes here are just too long for the average person to do (on a bike)."

It’s not that Atlanta isn’t trying to encourage cyclists, Crites said.

"Both the city and some nonprofits will provide bike racks to businesses," he said. "And all the MARTA trains and buses have bike racks (so riders can bring their bikes on board)."

But most roads, both in Hall and throughout metro Atlanta, are not designed to accommodate bicycles, and that’s a problem that no one has yet been able to fix.

"We’re not Minneapolis or Portland or Seattle or any of those other places that have a lot of bike lanes," Crites said.

In Hall, it’s generally not safe for bikes to ride in the road because they are slower than the cars whizzing by, and there’s not enough room on the shoulder for bikes to get out of the path of traffic.

Hall County engineer Kevin McInturff said there are isolated bike trails alongside a few of the newer roads in the county, but these segments are brief, usually a mile or less in distance.

However, McInturff hopes that by next year, the county can start construction on a project that could actually make transportation by bicycle a reality, at least in some areas.

The Central Hall Multi-use Trail is envisioned as a 14-mile-long, 12-foot-wide paved path that will eventually loop between downtown Gainesville and the Oakwood/Gainesville State College area.

Hall has received $1.6 million in federal transportation funding to begin the project.

"Preliminary plans are being reviewed by the (Georgia Department of Transportation)," McInturff said. "Once that is complete, we’ll start working on the final plans. The first phase will be about 1 mile, basically from around the airport to the Department of Labor building on Atlanta Highway."

He said there is no timeline for completing the entire project.

It can’t come soon enough for many bike enthusiasts in Hall.

"If there was more public outcry for bike trails, these things could get done quicker," said Tom Hughes, owner of Bike Town U.S.A. in Gainesville.

Hughes said that overall, "America is one of the worst countries in the world (for bicycle commuting). Only 1 percent of people ride a bike to work."

But he added that some American cities have made an aggressive effort to be bike-friendly.

"In Madison, Wisconsin, they have bike paths all over the place, even though it’s up north and they can only use the trails for seven months of the year," he said.

Hughes believes more people would turn to bicycle commuting if Hall had the infrastructure to support it.

"In the last three months, I’m seeing a few people coming in wanting to get their bikes fixed up so they could ride to work," he said.

Bennett said his shop has not seen any increase in demand at all.

"The general public thinks that sales of bikes must be going up because of the price of gas, but that’s not the case," he said. "If it went up to $10 a gallon, I think people will start buying bikes."

Bennett said people are reluctant because getting anywhere on a bike in Hall is such a hassle.

"I used to ride a bike to work," he said. "I used to race, so I did it as a form of training. But I don’t race anymore, so I prefer to be in a car. It’s very inconvenient to ride to work in this area."

Bennett said encouraging bike commuting requires not just more bike lanes but a new attitude from businesses and government.

"Does your place of employment have showers? Does it have a place to change clothes? Does it have a safe place for you to keep your bike?"

Lloyd Unnold, a Gainesville resident and avid recreational cyclist, said people are not willing to be uncomfortable.

"I don’t think Americans are ever going to get out of their cars," he said. "They get a lot of security from being surrounded by steel."

Unnold said people may not realize how easy bike commuting can be, as long as you have the right vehicle.

"You can’t really commute in a racing-type bike," he said. "But commuter bikes are more comfortable, more upright, with padded seats and thicker tires."

Some area bike shops, such as Northstar Bicycles in Dawsonville, report that more customers are showing interest in this type of bicycle.

But only one North Georgia city has truly embraced the concept of commuting by bike. Not surprisingly, it’s the college town of Athens.

"People are very open-minded here," said Mark Schroeder, manager of The Hub Bicycles in Athens. "A lot of the stores have bike racks, and drivers around here understand how to get along with bikes."

That’s always been true. But now it seems even more residents are considering two-wheelers.

"Our business has gone up dramatically in the past two months," Schroeder said. "The first question people have is, ‘I want to bike to work. What should I get?’"

He shows them various models of commuting bikes, which are durable and have places to mount racks and saddlebags for carrying cargo.

Schroeder said such bikes can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,200. But unlike with a car, there is no ongoing cost to operating a bike. The only mode of transportation that’s cheaper is walking.

Unnold wonders whether more people will be attracted to bikes if the price of oil continues to increase.

"It’s going to be interesting over the next few years to see what happens with these gas prices," he said.



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