Hardcore commuters fuel Cleveland's two-wheeled renaissance

Italo Gonzalez has been biking to his job at the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff in Tower City most every day since he started there three years ago. Barring blizzard or monsoon, Gonzalez rides 6.6 miles from his Coventry-area apartment down bike-friendly Euclid Avenue, taking the same route in return. If you're scoring at home, that's 66 miles a week, and 3,432 miles over the course of a year.
Though Gonzalez has a car, he prefers a two-wheeled commute in order to enjoy the weather and save money on gas. Avoiding Cleveland's rush hour gridlock is an added bonus. It's also saving a couple of Ben Franklins every month on Tower City parking.
"I can leave downtown on my bike faster than I can in my car," says Gonzalez, 43. "I don't wait in traffic, and I'm putting gas in my car once a month."

More Cleveland workers are following Gonzalez's lead in a metro that's becoming - however slowly - more accessible to bike riders. The city will add 70 miles to its bikeway network by next year, an increase of nearly 150 percent from 2013. New bicycle pathways are being integrated with facility improvements including The Bike Rack, the region’s first full service bicycle parking and commuter center, where a monthly pass gives cyclists access to lockers, showers and changing facilities, repair services and attended bike parking. In addition, a new bike-sharing program called UHBikes is coming to downtown and University Circle in mid-July.

Italo Gonzalez

Cleveland's bike commuting advancements over the last several years have pushed Ohio to number 16 on the League of American Bicyclists' Bicycle Friendly State Report, a move up 16 places from the state's ranking in 2013. According to census figures gathered by regional advocacy group Bike Cleveland, the number of workers commuting to work via bicycle in the city has grown 285 percent.
"It's about giving people (transportation) options," says Bike Cleveland executive director Jacob VanSickle. "People move to cities where they have more options."
"It's my main means of transportation now."
Gonzalez leaves home at 7:15, usually getting to the office at 7:45. In case of particularly inclement weather, Gonzalez will head to a nearby RTA stop and bring his bike aboard, although he'll usually muscle through rain, snow and sleet unless the roads are impassible.
"Bike commuting has become my routine," says Gonzalez. "It's my main means of transportation now."
The Ecuador native's first brush with serious biking came during a local bike event where participants traveled 30 miles and gathered for a post-ride party. Soon Gonzalez was pedaling to work one or two times a week, eventually ramping his schedule up to five days.
"I'll go to meetings by bike, too," he says. "I get a little sweaty, but I have a backpack with my work clothes in it."

Ryan Manthey
Gonzalez is not alone. Ryan Manthey, a business development specialist with Downtown Cleveland Alliance, logs 15 miles round trip journeying from Lakewood to downtown. Manthey takes Detroit Avenue, a fairly leisurely jaunt that nonetheless serves as a convenient cardio workout.
"It turns a commute into a much more efficient use of my time," says Manthey, 26. "I'm exercising and getting to work in the same amount of time it would take me by car."
At DCA, Manthey has been part of the conversation in improving Cleveland's biking infrastructure. The forthcoming UHBikes bike share program, a collaboration among University Hospitals and Cuyahoga County’s Department of Sustainability, the city of Cleveland, Bike Cleveland, University Circle Inc., and vendor CycleHop-SoBi, is expected to deliver up to 250 bikes by August in the first phase of a multi-year rollout plan.
Building a cycling community
Creating a commuter cyclist society downtown means having enough bike paths, which is an area where Cleveland is still behind the curve, notes Bike Cleveland's VanSickle. The area's bikeways mostly consist of painted roadway signs called sharrows or bike lanes with no buffer from traffic.
VanSickle points to nearby cities like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Detroit, all of which have installed protected bike lanes that separate cyclists from the street via posts, plantings, parked cars and other buffers.

Bike Cleveland's Jacob VanSickle
Cleveland's first protected bike lane is in the works, VanSickle says. Funded by the YMCA and the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), The Midway project would stand as a citywide network of protected pathways, including a two-way cycle track along Lorain Avenue. The venture is currently in the planning process, with a public meeting hosted by the Cleveland City Planning Commission scheduled for Wednesday, June 29 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Public Library, 325 Superior Ave. on the second floor.
Separated and protected bike lanes could improve safety as well as get a higher percentage of Cleveland's workforce into an alternative form of transportation.
"There's a real or perceived fear (from prospective riders) without this infrastructure," says VanSickle. "Without it we're not going to tip the bar of getting more people riding."
To that end, Manthey says several of his DCA coworkers would join him on rides with better safety parameters in place.

The Midway project would stand as a citywide network of protected pathways, including a two-way cycle track along Lorain Avenue
"We have to make the roads more convenient for bike commuters," he says. "People don't like riding with traffic, and I understand that."
Increasing safety includes educating motor vehicle operators on biking, VanSickle adds. The nonprofit's current campaign is "We're All Drivers," which highlights how various community members use cycling for transportation. Meanwhile, NOACA is promoting OhioBikeBuddies, an online matching service that provides ride-along companions for new bike commuters.
"There's the social factor in seeing more people out biking," says VanSickle. "You're not going to get that experience driving to work."
Good all around
Cleveland employers can also do more to promote biking and other forms of sustainable transportation, say NOACA officials spearheading the Commuter Choice Challenge, which is part of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative. The program offers, among other incentives, bike riding and traffic skill classes for businesses and organizations that promote cycling through amenities such as covered parking areas and on-site shower facilities.
"The natural history museum has a parking cash-out program that gives employees the cash value of not parking in their lots," says Tim Kovach, an environmental policy professional at NOACA. "They get paid for days they bike, walk or use public transport instead of driving."
Bike Cleveland sponsors lunchtime presentations for companies interested in a new type of commute for their employees. The nonprofit helps workers plan bike routes and encourages group rides for those uncomfortable going it alone. Putting more bikes on the street can only be a boon for a city that needs to attract more young talent, proponents say.
"Biking infrastructure is important to people when they're choosing where to live," says VanSickle. "Cleveland is on its way, but there is still a long way to go."
Bike commuter Manthey looks forward to a long summer of riding, and hopes Cleveland continues to develop its biking infrastructure so more workers can enjoy the open air and cost savings cycling provides.
"Biking is good for you, it's good the planet, it's good all around," Manthey says. "I don't see a downside to it."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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