In the suburbs, bike commuting an uphill effort

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2013 

— Cycling’s big here. Head out to the western edge of town after work, or on a weekend morning, and you’re sure to see packs of cyclists on two-lane country roads, thighs pumping and jerseys dripping. Deeper inside town, meanwhile, kids on training wheels weave their way along a network of paved trails, tailed by doting parents.

For all those wheels in this officially “Bicycle Friendly Community,” though, only a fraction of Caryites are taking the next step: biking to work. One survey estimate says that perhaps 200 people regularly ride to their office from this town of more than 140,000.

That’s no surprise to anyone who has driven western Wake County, where riders report that long distances and big roads can discourage bicycle commutes. Cary’s not exceptional in that sense – its bike commutership rate was above the state average in 2011 – but the town fell about 40 percent below the national average and lagged denser municipalities such as Durham and Chapel Hill, according to the 2008-2011 American Community Survey.

“I don’t see too many of us,” said Liz King, a private land planner for The Design Response who rides a short route through downtown streets.

More than a badge of honor in cycling circles, a town’s population of bike-to-workers can say something about its design and demographics: How accessible are workplaces to residences? How many transit options do residents have?

“Like everything else, certainly the development pattern can impact the type of travel choices that you make,” said Juliet Andes, the Cary town planner who supervises cycling and pedestrian planning. “Having a range of choices closer to residential areas sometimes can help” encourage a trip by foot or bike.

In recent years, she said, more bike commuters have been calling in to Town Hall for tips and help planning routes. But Andes isn’t ready to draw any official conclusions about which way the trend’s going. Because the numbers in the Census-backed survey are so low, they’re particularly suspect to the “margin of error” problem.

In fact, that survey estimate of 200 riders in Cary could be off by a few hundred riders – a full 100 percent. The town, in either case, has planned for years to make a simpler proposition of biking to work, to the store, or just about anywhere.

Safety in traffic

Frank Strong was ready to ride to work when he arrived for a new job at the local legal-oriented arm of software company LexisNexis.

The communications director cruised the American Tobacco Trail down from Durham the day before his new job began in April. It was easy going for 70 percent of the way, he recalled. But when that trail ended, he found himself on the secondary roads he hates to ride at rush hour. He hasn’t tried it since.

“I just don’t want to do that. I don’t feel that safe,” Strong said. “Especially in the mornings, when traffic tends to be a little heavier, it tends to be more dangerous.”

The 40-mile round-trip doesn’t help either, he added.

Jeff Rawls is one of the lucky ones. On his rides to work, he’s able to stick almost entirely to Cary’s Black Creek Greenway, flying through shady stands of trees and suburban neighborhoods en route to western Raleigh.

“My commute would be probably 20 minutes” by car, said Rawls, 55. His bike ride takes “20 extra minutes, and it’s all through the woods, huffing and puffing and enjoying nature.”

That option is becoming more acessible by the year as Cary and neighboring towns link up their greenway systems. Frank Strong, for example, should be able to transfer from the Tobacco Trail to Cary’s own system within a few years, and cycling rates in general may rise as the bikes-and-pedestrians network spreads.

Not everyone lives on a greenway, though. For those without access, Cary, like many other communities, has instead tried to make room on the roads for bikes. Throughout the 2000s, Cary has required wider shoulders, dedicated bike lanes or “shared use” markings – or “sharrows’ – on practically all new roads, while occasionally retrofitting older roads.

Today, the town has about 110 miles of those bike-friendlier roads, and it also has installed 200 bike parking spots in public places.

Still, even a perfect biking system wouldn’t get everyone biking. Not every office has a shower, not every parent has time – and it’s still exercise. But for those who can, a ride to work can be its own reward.

“It’s actually nice and cool in the morning. I wave to the kids on the way to school,” King said. “It’s kind of like Mayberry or something,” she added with a laugh.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or

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