Increased pedaling due to more than just nice weather

While Syracuse has had its share of warm weather this fall, that is not the only reason for increased bikes on campus.

Twenty years ago, Syracuse University had around 30 bike racks. Today, bikers in the university community can choose to park at one of 238 locations throughout the main and south campuses, according to James Thompson, manager of crime prevention for the SU Department of Public Safety. On busy days, bikers have also helped themselves to various railings, sign posts and fences to lock up to.

Photo: Michele Maciejewski
Freshman Craig Allen struggles to find an open spot to lock his bike near the Engineering Building.

There isn’t a clear system for keeping a tally on the number of people who bike to campus every day, but several people have an idea. Thompson estimates around 1,000 bikes daily, given how packed the bike racks are. A survey of 2,400 people done by the office of off-campus and commuter services found that over five percent of off-campus students at SU bike to class daily. That’s about 990 students, plus the faculty and staff not included in the survey. Let’s not forget about the State University of New York College of Environmental Science. The survey found 13 percent of off-campus ESF students bike, adding around 325 more bikes to the mix.

In general, the number of people commuting to campus on bike is directly related to how bad the weather is. The worse weather gets – whether it’s rain, snow or just plain cold – the less people want to peddle it to class. It’s human nature. This year is likely no different, but even as November quickly approaches, there are still plenty of bikes left on campus. While unseasonably nice weather has factored into increased biking numbers this fall, at least three other forces are at play.

Unseasonably warm weather

One of the most noted aspects of life in Syracuse is the weather. Inevitably, people mention the cold and snow during campus tours, orientations and visits by parents. This year, however, nature didn’t get the memo. There were streaks of 80-degree weather in September. Previous October high temperatures tended to hover around 60 degrees; this year, October highs currently average 81 degrees.

Ed Rother has been monitoring parking at the Northgate Booth near the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications for around 20 years. Rother can clearly see the bike rack in front of Crouse-Hinds Hall, which, according to him, has around 20-25 bikes locked to it by 9 a.m. every day. He says bike numbers drop by mid-October, around Columbus Day, but so far he’s still seeing the bikers. “There is milder weather,” Rother says. “The trees haven’t even turned yet.”

In case you didn’t notice, it’s also been pretty rainy. A deterrent for some, rain has not caused bike numbers to drop significantly. “I’m kind of wacky,” says Tim Tack, an architecture grad student. “I’ll ride rain or shine. Biking is the best transportation in the city but public transportation sucks.” For Tack, who sold his vehicle after deciding that SU didn’t have enough parking, the weather hasn’t influenced his commuting habits. Convenience is more at play.

Save money, ride a bike!

Let’s say there is a junior living in the Westcott Nation, as the area surrounding bars and shops on Westcott Street is called. She lives around 1.5 miles from campus and has class every day. She likes to go to Tops grocery store near South Campus, which is around 2 miles from her apartment, once a week. On the weekends, she likes to go to the mall or downtown for drinks in Armory Square. Her average commute is 25 miles a week and she bikes it.

Today’s passenger vehicles can get almost 34 miles per gallon, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. So in 30 weeks, the girl in our scenario would’ve had to buy around 22 gallons of gas just to get to class and the store. This doesn’t seem like a lot but since the average gas price in Syracuse is currently $3.59, that adds up to $80. Add to that the cost of a parking permit, $75, and maintenance of the car; she could be saving well over $200 a year by biking.

She’s also saving time. A 1.5-mile bike ride might take around ten minutes, while walking can take a half-hour or more. Bus rides often take longer because students must walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus to arrive and be jostled along as other stops are made on the way to campus. Driving seems like the quickest way, until you factor in getting from the lots to class. Manley Lot, where many undergraduates park, is over a mile from main campus, so even drivers must walk or bus the rest of the way.

Thompson attributes some of the greater biking numbers to its appeal as a quick, cheap commuting option. “Gas money is hurting students,” Thompson says. “Students can roll out of bed at 8:45 a.m. and get to a nine o’clock class.”

Better, safer infrastructure

With so many more bikes on campus than ever before, safety is a big concern. When speaking about biking to and from SU, bikers and SU administrators alike inevitably bring up the issue.

One of the main biking routes to campus is Euclid Avenue, where off-campus housing abounds and hundreds of students, faculty and staff travel daily. Darya Rotblat, director of the Office of Off-campus and Commuter Services, works near this busy street and is often concerned for biker safety.

Rotblat says most students commuting to school by bike are not avid riders, and thus are not as focused on safety as they should be. She often sees bikers blow through red lights and ride on the side of stopped cars, a practice that gets her worried. Since there are no bike lanes on the street, however, it’s difficult for bikers to know where to ride.

But other parts of campus have seen vast improvement with their infrastructure. Take a ride up the recently reopened University Avenue and notice curb-separated bike lanes. The main routes from south campus, including East Colvin and Comstock Avenue, have clearly marked, but less structured bike lanes.

Inconsistent infrastructure often has bikers concerned. Rebekka Schuh is a junior English literature student from Austria. At home, she says, there are more curbed bike lanes than here at SU, and this makes her nervous. She says it’s scary to be so close to the cars, but endures it because biking is much quicker than the bus.

Thompson, from DPS, says they really ramped up their campaign to decrease bike theft this year by tagging over 1,000 bikes not locked with a U-Lock. These types of locks are thick metal tubes bent into a u-shape that, when closed up with another thick, straight metal piece, created a more solid seal for a bike than a tube, chain or plastic rope lock. Thus, if Thompson or other DPS staff sees this, they will offer advice on properly securing bikes, give discounts to buy U-locks at the campus bookstore and often give away free u-locks. Thompson said that given the 12-15 bikes stolen in the first week of the fall semester this year, this is one way to stop theft before it happens.

Another way is DPS’s bike registration program. Any person that pedals to campus may register their bike with DPS. Before student had to fill a form out at the DPS office in Sims Hall, but there is now an online form that students and staff fill out with their personal information and description of the bike. Once students retrieve a small license plate from Sims and attach it to their bikes, the bike is registered with DPS as well as the City of Syracuse. If a bike is stolen, any police officer on campus and in the city will have the information to track it down.

The downside is students must make the effort. As of this week, only 97 bikes have been fully registered with DPS and a few are pending. Why are the majority not registering given the benefits? “I’m too lazy actually,” Schuh says about not registering her bike. She also said she didn’t pay a lot for the bike, so she’s not as concerned anyway. Thompson knows many students feel this way, but is optimistic. “The program keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Thompson says, who imagines more will register as the biking population continues to increase.

Sustainable practices

There’s no doubt that riding a bicycle helps reduce fuel consumption and the release of greenhouse gases, gases that trap heat in our atmosphere and contribute to rising global temperatures. “ESF students are more cognizant of sustainability in their willingness to bike versus drive,” Rotblat says, who was not surprised at the results of her office’s off-campus biking survey.

But, so are SU students. Just last month, two SU buildings were given LEED certifications for their sustainable designs and functions. SU has an office of sustainability that sponsors recycling drives, environmental documentary screenings and other events to raise awareness and drive behavior change. The message is out there for SU students and it may be impacting their decision to ditch their cars and use two wheels instead.

Thank you!

Hi Professor Brown,

Thanks so much for the great suggestion. We added the DPS link to the article.

-Katrina Tulloch, Asst. Executive Producer

Good story, but . . .

how about including a link to the online DPS form for registering your bike? That's the beauty of the internet--links are easy and add value for your readers! :)

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