As gas prices soar, so does interest in bicycling in Mass.
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BOSTON -- Drivers clear a lane, bicyclists are taking to the road in record numbers in Massachusetts.
In Cambridge ridership has soared 70 percent in five years, the MBTA is launching a "Bike Coach" to let riders bring their bicycles to beaches this summer and across the state bicycle shops are struggling to keep up with demand.
With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, the surge shows no signs of slowing.
During a recent bike-to-work week, activists hoped to get Massachusetts riders to pledge 50,000 commuter biking miles. Instead they got 125,000 pledged miles -- more than half the distance to the moon.
For bicycling enthusiasts -- once a subculture of bike messengers, car haters, cash-poor students and eco-activists -- it's beginning to feel like a tipping point.
"People are coming back to the cycle in a big way," said Shane Jordan of the nonprofit Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. "There's a whole lot more people out on the street around this time than there were last year."
Cities and town are adapting in big and small ways.
In Lexington, near the popular 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway, activists installed a half-dozen new bicycle racks in April for the crush of bicyclists. On a recent Saturday every spot was taken, with extra bikes locked to sign posts and parking meters.
"I couldn't believe how many people were out there," said Stewart Kennedy, head of the local bicycle advisory committee. "It's getting into the zeitgeist that it's cool."
Boston is planning to install hundreds of new bicycles racks and create a new "bike map" of the city while one of the Massachusetts' largest planning groups has launched a statewide inventory of ridership on bicycle trails.
Riders are also flocking to sign up for safety and training courses, according to Jordan, the bicycle coalition's director of education and outreach.
The group offers one-hour sessions at companies to help workers learn the ins and outs of bike commuting. Last year the group gave three training sessions. This year they've given about a dozen, Jordan said.
At Ace Wheelworks in Somerville, mechanic and salesman Memet Ozgoren said business is booming.
Sales have been especially good among riders looking for sturdy commuting bikes, according to Ozgoren, who said several customers told him they sold their cars.
"Bike sales have been excellent in general, especially bikes geared toward urban riding -- bicycles that are more practical as opposed to pleasure craft," he said.
The shop's location near Boston also helps.
"The closer you get to the city, the more practical it becomes," he said.
Neighboring Cambridge has worked for more than a decade to encourage cycling -- designating bicycle lanes on streets, supplying more bicycle racks, and building off-road trails.
The efforts have paid off, according to Cara Seiderman, a transportation program manager for the city.
Between 2002 and 2007, bicycle ridership soared 70 percent, according to annual counts conducted at 16 intersections during peak travel hours. Seiderman said she expects the number to jump again in September when the city does the count for 2008.
With its narrower streets, slower car speeds and urban setting, Cambridge lends itself to cycling, she said, adding that rising gas prices may only be part of reason for the surge.
"It's a combination of it's fun and it's great exercise," she said. "It's not all about getting to work, it may be about going to visit a friend or drop off a book at the library."
Cambridge isn't alone in trying to quantify the increase in cycling.
Cathy Buckley Lewis, chief transportation planner for the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization, has launched a multiyear effort looking at ridership on bike trails in Boston, Western Massachusetts, Cape Cod and other spots.
"We're trying to get counts three times a year at various locations across the state," she said. "We're at the beginning stages."
The MBTA is trying to make public transportation more bicycle-friendly, according to T General Manager Daniel Grabauskas.
The system will open its first "bike cage" at the Red Line's Alewife station this summer -- a secure lock-up facility with video surveillance and spaces for up to 50 bikes. Bike parking at MBTA stations has grown by 64 percent since 2004.
The MBTA has also added a "bike coach" to the Greenbush line to let cyclists take their bikes to South Shore beaches like Nantasket. There's already a bike coach north to beaches in Gloucester and Rockport. And by year's end, half of all MBTA buses will have bike racks.
But the Holy Grail of bicycle commuting -- a European-style bike-sharing service similar to Zipcar -- remains just a dream in Boston.
In April, Washington D.C. became the nation's first city to launch such a system. SmartBike D.C. gives members access to a network of bikes stored at computerized racks around the city for a $40 membership feel. The service has just 10 stations and 120 bikes. Paris started its service last summer with more than 10,600 bikes at 750 stations.
"It's a really intriguing idea. It's something I'd like to see if it could work in Boston," said Boston's bicycle program director Nicole Freedman. "It's something we'd have to think about a lot."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)