Work cycle: In Gainesville, nearly 3,600 ride their bikes to their jobs

Nick Bryant, who works at SharpSpring and bikes to work several times a week, walks his bike out of the office as he prepares to ride home from work, in Gainesville, Friday Oct. 11, 2013. Bryant usually take a more scenic route through some of the neighborhoods rather than taking a busy street.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 10:13 p.m.

Biking to work during rush hour is better than driving a car, Steve Lachnicht says.

For one thing, he doesn't have to deal with downtown parking. He parks in his office.

It's certainly more pleasurable than driving, he said.

And he said encounters with cars are "very rare."

"There are probably more incidents driving a car in terms of someone cutting you off," said Lachnicht, who is director of growth management and interim budget director for Alachua County.

Lachnicht, 51, has been biking to work every day for about five years now, taking advantage of the bike lanes on Southwest 13th Street and Second Avenue for the nearly four-mile ride from his house off Williston Road.

He is one of the nearly 3,600 people in Gainesville who commute by bicycle to work, according to the Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey, placing the city in the top 20 nationwide with a 6.2 percent rate of working people who commute by bike compared with a national rate of 0.6 percent.

The conditions in Gainesville are certainly favorable for bike commuting. The city has 67 miles of bicycle lanes, 16 miles of paved shoulders and 21 miles of off-road trails, according to the city of Gainesville's Bicycle & Pedestrian Program. City building codes require new apartments and businesses to have bicycle racks. A young population and relatively compact city layout also contribute to the higher rate of bicycle commuting.

Efforts to improve road access for bicycles have not gone unchallenged by people concerned about restricting traffic flow to make space for bike lanes and sharing limited money for road improvements.

Energy prices and health concerns have increased interest in bicycle commuting over the past decade or so, said Ron Cunningham, executive director of Bike Florida, who biked to work every day before he retired last year as editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

Lachnicht said he notices more bikers locally and when he travels.

"My office is right on Second Avenue, and since they redid Second Avenue, it's constant bicycles all day long between campus and downtown," he said.

When Shadow Health moved from the University of Florida Innovation Hub, CEO David Massias said he chose its downtown location on Southwest First Avenue because half of Shadow Health's employees wanted to bike to work.

Online marketing company SharpSpring chose its location in the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency building on Northwest Fifth Avenue for its proximity to campus and downtown to appeal to young tech talent. As a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design-certified building, the CRA building has bike racks at both entrances.

Nick Bryant, 23, said he bikes the two miles to his job as a software engineer at SharpSpring two or three times a week, depending on the weather. He also walks to work. Bryant said he is motivated by health reasons, environmental reasons and mental health reasons.

"Biking, walking — anything where you're using human muscle, it's good for the whole person," he said.

Lachnicht said significant efforts to build bike lanes started in the 1980s. As a university community, he said Gainesville has been more receptive to bike commuting as part of the transportation mix, though improvements have slowed. "The fact that we've been so slow to make road improvements over the years has kind of made that more difficult," he said.

Alachua County voters shot down a road tax last year partly over disagreements in the community over whether to use public money to only address the backlog of road maintenance improvements versus using some of that money for added bike, pedestrian and bus improvements.

"The interesting thing about that, we don't spend nearly the proportion of money on bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure relative to the number of bikes and pedestrians that we have," said James Thompson, advocacy director of the 1,100-member Gainesville Cycling Club.

A group called Gainesville Citizens for Active Transportation recently sought to promote multi-use trails and streets.

Recent political battles included the decision to conduct a trial to narrow Northwest Eighth Avenue and to narrow the inside lane and widen the outside lane on Northwest 16th Avenue with signs to share the road with bikes. Work on that starts next month.

"I thought it was a ridiculous argument over 16th Avenue," Cunningham said. "It's a very broad avenue where people drive really fast. … All they were asking for was a piece of the road and to slow down the motorists a little bit so it wouldn't be so dangerous."

Cunningham, who has written about the subject extensively, said there is understandable antagonism between the relatively new trend of trying to develop walkable and bikeable communities after half a century of designing communities to make drivers feel comfortable driving fast.

"You can't have that kind of transformation without creating tensions with people who have always been able to drive as fast as they want on these overdesigned roads," he said.

Cunningham said bad cyclists are partly to blame for the tensions. He would like to see police crack down on bad cyclists the way they crack down on bad motorists.

"The thing that drives motorists crazy is when they see bicyclists darting out in the road, going the wrong way, running red lights," he said.

In addition to more enforcement, Cunningham said he sees room for improvement to promote cycling in Gainesville such as bike-sharing programs and shared-lane markings on roads.

Gainesville has been designated a silver-level Bicycle Friendly Community for years by the League of American Bicyclists, one of only two Florida cities at silver or above based on cycling infrastructure and support.

Thompson said the city has been resting on its silver laurels for years.

"The city and county are on board with doing more," he said. "It's always a question of funding."

He said some recent changes that could improve the rating include expansion of the new Archer-Braid Trail and approval of transit-oriented development such as Celebration Pointe that include developer fees to pay for bike and pedestrian trails.

Thompson, 43, bikes about 10 miles from Micanopy to his job selling bikes at Gator Cycle.

"I have a bike-friendly workplace that makes that possible," he said. "Covered indoor parking. We're allowed to show up sweaty if we need to. We need for more workplaces to support that kind of behavior."

Cunningham said the key to his commute was having a shower and lockers at work.

"If you don't have access to those kind of facilities when you get to work, that's probably the biggest drawback," he said.

Lachnicht said he cleans up in the restroom and brings a change of clothes.

"I don't shower. Some might find that a concern," he said. "It's a 15-minute ride on my bike. Big deal. Get over it."

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