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Spinning Their Wheels on Work Commute : Transportation: Despite Los Angeles' ideal weather and the need to clean its air, only 1% bike to their jobs.


AREAWIDE — For mail carrier John Hyers, neither rain nor snow nor the motorist with the hair-trigger horn keeps him from biking to work.

"Some drivers get a little arrogant," said the 46-year-old Hyers. "And they veer towards you, it seems like."

Hyers braves traffic and ill-tempered drivers during the 20 minutes each day that he rides his bike to his job at the U.S. Post Office in Torrance. It's a commute time he can beat in his car by only five minutes

With its generally flat roadways, mild weather, emphasis on fitness and need to clean up its dirty air, Los Angeles would seem to be an ideal city for riding a bike to work. But Hyers is part of a tiny group, an estimated 1% of workers who pedal to their place of employment.

Transportation planners find the figure all the more discouraging because nearly half of the city's commuters live within bike-riding distance of their jobs, which officials consider anything less than 10 miles. But safety concerns, a shortage of interconnected bike lanes and a lack of shower facilities at most offices have kept many would-be bicyclists in their cars.

Although the public's growing environmental concerns may increase the number of bike commuters, officials believe that overt pressure from the Air Quality Management District may offer the best hope of persuading workers to trade in four wheels for two.

A new AQMD regulation requires workplaces with more than 100 employees to implement plans to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles.

"The cities have to figure out how to get cars off the streets, and bike lanes can help," said Cheryl Paniagua, commuter services coordinator for Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo.

Many regional employers are offering a number of incentives--from raffle prizes such as VCRs to nominal monthly stipends--to entice employees to bike to work. Some large employers, including Redondo Beach-based TRW Inc., guarantee cyclists a ride home if the need arises.

Garrison Frost, a 24-year-old administrative aide at Manhattan Beach City Hall, said the city's $60-a-month stipend and the accompanying savings in fuel costs keep him cycling the six blocks from his home to work. Frost began pedaling his beach cruiser to City Hall when his car broke down six months ago. That's when he discovered an unforeseen benefit to biking.

"It's weird--over time you realize you get to work less frazzled by not having to deal with traffic and parking," Frost said.

Not everyone, however, needs a car problem to prompt them to cycle. For some, all it takes is a few extra pounds.

"I play tennis, but it's not really enough to work off the extra weight you get sitting in front of a computer terminal," said Richard Katz, 29, an engineer at TRW. "By biking, I'll be able to fit into my jeans." Katz's two-mile trip to TRW takes about 15 minutes by car or bike.

Many bike commuters cite the need to improve the region's notoriously poor air quality as the most compelling reason for pedaling to work. And because nearly 70% of the region's air pollution is caused by automobiles, transportation officials say more bicyclists will help AQMD's battle for cleaner air.

"I'm doing my part to cut air pollution," Hyers said.

Observers predict that during the '90s, the number of bike commuters will rise because of growing environmental concerns among workers. But any increase will depend largely on the priority bike planning receives from government.

"If the region, the county and the cities start creating more bicycle-friendly cities, and set up a physical and programmatic infrastructure for bicycles like they've done for cars, I think 5% is a very realistic number (for bike commuters)," said Ryan Snyder, a transportation planner based in Westwood. "If (government) doesn't plan for it, then I don't expect it to get to 5%."

Although 5% may seem optimistic for a populace famous for driving everywhere, Snyder points out that in Palo Alto, cyclists account for 10% of the daily commuters.

A new Los Angeles ordinance, written by Snyder, will also make it easier for employees to commute by cycle.

The ordinance requires new businesses of over 25,000 square feet to supply bike racks and shower facilities for cyclists. Other California cities, including Brea, Irvine and Palo Alto, already have or are planning to approve similar legislation, Snyder said.

The city of Glendale doesn't mandate that companies aid bicyclists, but several large employers--including Glendale Federal and Bank of America--offer cash, raffle drawings and other incentives, said Jeanne Olwin, executive director of the Glendale Transportation Management Assn.

Glendale city employees who pedal to work get lockers, bike racks and showers on the job plus a $10 monthly bonus if they use their bikes at least three times a week. The city also has a bike pool fleet for workers' use.

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