Health care professionals appreciate the benefits of commuting by bike

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 6, 2013 

Sitting in front of his computer in an office across the street from St. Joseph Medical Center, Jeff Peterson hasn't moved from his seat in hours.

A hospital scheduler, he spends most of his time scrolling through surgery schedules, clacking out names on his keyboard and answering the phone.

"The most exercise I get at work is when I have to run documents across the street to the main hospital several times a day," he says.

Concerned about his health, Peterson, 38, knew he couldn't avoid his desk-bound schedule, so he changed the way he goes to work. He invested in a bicycle and rides often to his job. Because of that, he has lost about 50 pounds over the past two years.

"If the weather's bad, which happens a lot in Bellingham in the winter, I take the bus to work," Peterson says. "But the bus isn't as quick as taking my bike."

Close to where Peterson works, Dr. Steven Bloom can often be seen bicycling during the spring and summer to his job at Whatcom Family Medicine, a clinic near St. Joseph hospital. Years ago, Bloom, 40, began riding on trails and quiet streets in his hometown of Ketchikan, Alaska. In Bellingham, he seeks out trails, too.

"I live near a greenways trail, which happens to be a direct route from my house to my office," Bloom says. "I purposefully bought this house for the trails, because I hate riding through traffic."

GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH

The health benefits of bicycling are well-known, so it makes sense that health care workers are among those who bike to work. Bicycling is a smooth, low-impact form of exercise that burns calories, tones muscles, puts your coordination in gear, and is good for your heart.

Studies also suggest that bicycling is good for society's health. A 2011 study by a University of Zurich researcher calculated that millions of dollars of planned bicycle improvements in Portland, Ore., could save nearly four times that amount in health care costs and fuel savings, and much more if people's longer lifespans are factored into the equation.

Similarly, a 2010 study based on bicycling in the Netherlands calculated that the health benefits of large numbers of people shifting from cars to bikes for short daily trips substantially outweigh the downside of people being hurt in traffic accidents and inhaling more air pollution while on the road.

In part because of the health benefits, St. Joseph Medical Center rewards employees who bike, walk or carpool to work. Employees who actively commute that way can receive up to $32 a month for doing so. Employees who regularly ride a bus to work receive a free bus pass worth $25.

In addition, showers and lockers for bicyclists are available at the main campus, and covered and locked bicycle racks are located outside the emergency room.

GOING TO WORK

On workdays, Peterson wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and checks the weather. If heavy rain or snow isn't in the forecast, he straps on his helmet, zips up a reflective jacket and presses his feet against the pedals of his black Trek FX hybrid trail bike.

By 7:50 a.m. he's traveling the streets by his Whatcom Falls home to Woburn Street and on to Fraser Street. He rides about four miles and makes it to work in 10 minutes on a good day, 20 minutes if he isn't so lucky navigating traffic.

Peterson says it takes him about 20 minutes longer to take the bus than to bike to work. If he can't ride in the morning, he has to take two buses to reach his office. He prefers biking.

"I ride past all of the people waiting at the bus stop and feel bad for them," he says, "because I'm almost at work and they're still waiting there."

In his youth, Peterson says, he never thought of bicycling as exercise. He would cruise the woody paths of Columbia Gorge with his father on long trips, and he biked the Palouse Country in Eastern Washington.

"I used to be an avid bicycler," he says. "Now I am again."

Traveling to other cities, such as London, has given Peterson a stronger appreciation for Bellingham's pro-bicycle atmosphere.

"The streets were so narrow and there were so many cars that I was terrified riding a bike in London," he says. "I feel very safe riding my bike here.

"I feel like drivers are courteous and aware for the most part, with the exception of a few bad drivers," he says. "The time I usually feel unsafe is at night, when it's dark outside."

Bloom, who has three daughters, says making exercise entertaining helps him keep to a routine and also gets his daughters interested in their health. He started teaching his daughters how to ride a bike when they were about 2 years old, and they could ride mostly on their own by the time they were 5.

As a doctor, Bloom says it would be hypocritical of him to tell his patients to exercise if he were not exercising regularly himself. He says he has never been a successful runner, but still wanted to be a role model for his patients.

"I don't work as a ditch digger," Bloom says. "Plenty of us don't, so we have to get our cardiovascular fitness in other ways."

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

Ellen Barton, a transportation planner for the Whatcom Council of Governments, says that while the county works on plans for bicycle safety, riders need to follow traffic laws to stay safe on the road.

"We try to educate kids on how to bike and be safe on the road so they carry that skill for the rest of their lives," she says.

Kim Brown, transportation options coordinator for the city of Bellingham, says Bellingham is bicycle-friendly, but more can be done.

"Every time we have to repave a street, we use the opportunity to make more bike lanes," she says.

The League of American Bicyclists awarded Bellingham a silver rating for overall focus on bicycling in 2012. It's the third-highest rating from the national organization.

"I'd love to get to a gold or platinum rating someday," Brown says, "but for now our focus is just on getting more people on bicycles."


BICYCLE SAFETY TIPS

- Always wear a helmet.

- Scan the road; look for vehicles in front, to the side and behind you.

- Keep both hands on the brakes at all times.

- Never ride with headphones.

- Make eye contact with drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists.

- Make sure your bicycle is in good working condition.

- Wear bright clothing that drivers can see from a distance.

- Be predictable; don't weave in and out of traffic or make sudden turns.

Sources: Ellen Barton and the state Department of Transportation. TRAFFIC LAWS FOR BICYCLISTS

Here are important things to remember from bicycle traffic laws in Washington:

- Children and adults must follow all traffic laws.

- When bikers are traveling slower than traffic, they must stay as far right as possible unless they are making a turn, passing a vehicle or are on a multi-lane one-way road.

- Bicyclists can ride in the middle of the lane if they are traveling at the speed of traffic, the lane is too narrow to share with a car, or when road conditions on the far right are poor.

- At intersections, cyclists should use the rightmost lane or portion of lane designated for their destination. If no turn lane is available, cyclists should use the left side of the lane to turn left, the right side of the lane to turn right, or in the middle of the lane to go straight.

- Bikers are not required to use a bike lane or path that's adjacent to a roadway. They can choose the path, bike lane, road shoulder or road lane that best suits their safety needs.

- When biking at night, cyclists must have a white front light visible for 500 feet, and a red rear reflector.

Source: Whatcom Transportation Authority

Marissa Abruzzini is a freelance writer in Bellingham.

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