SAN FRANCISCO — With an autumn chill in the air on a gray San Francisco morning, the five-member Ades family rubbed the sleep from their eyes, strapped on their bike helmets and rode right past their two cars to the kids' elementary school about a mile away.
"It's good exercise, and there's an environmental aspect to it as well," said Stan Ades, of his decision to start his kids — ages 6, 8 and 10 — bike commuting to school.
Statewide, Californians are increasingly pumping air into the flat tires on their dusty old bikes instead of gas into their tanks. Recent historic spikes in gas prices are expected to stay high, forcing many to look at their gas guzzling minivans and SUVs in a new light.
"The cost of owning and keeping a car in the city; the cost of gas and the difficulty in parking are all factors," said Cheryl Brinkman, vice chair of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's board of directors. "The first time you ride your bike somewhere and lock it to a parking meter right outside where you're going is such a gift."
California's major cities have been preparing for this over the past decade, funneling millions of tax dollars and grants into bicycling infrastructure and public transportation projects to make them more attractive options for getting around town.
And it appears to be working: San Francisco has seen a 71 percent spike in cycling from 2006-2011; Los Angeles reports a 32 percent increase from 2009-2011. The figures come from studies done that used monitors at strategic intersections to measure bikers, in addition to traffic modeling.
Both findings gibe with the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which found a 63 percent increase in bicycle commuters from 2000 to 2010 in the nation's 70 largest cities.
"In some ways it's a perfect storm of events that is starting to take place," said Claire Bowin, head of policy planning for Los Angeles' planning department. Getting people out of cars "is a very daunting task, but on other hand we have largely benefited from a growing community here that is demanding these things. We're not just sitting here in our ivory tower saying people should bike."
The car-centric City of Angels is in the midst of building almost 1,600 miles of bike infrastructure over the next five years — so far, it has completed more than 83 miles of lanes and paths linking key areas — and its largely underutilized subway has seen a slow increase in ridership that only grows when gasoline prices soar.
Los Angeles County's Metrolink, which features open train cars for bike riders and connects the county's far-flung cities, has seen record ridership over the past week, said Sherita Coffelt, the system's spokeswoman.
"Historically there have been spikes whenever gas prices rise, but with the past gas spike, we sustained our ridership; that was breaking the cycle," Coffelt said regarding an earlier spike in 2012.
Among the first cities trying to get people peddling was Long Beach, California's seventh most populous city. The Southern California city installed the country's first bike transit center in 1996, and now features more than 120 miles of bike lanes and paths.
The city has seen a 50 percent increase this year in the number of people who bike and walk to work, said Allan Crawford, Long Beach's bike coordinator.
It's not only about getting people to cycle long distances to work — although that has increased, too. Cities are focusing on the short trips to the grocery store, or families getting the kids to school.
Short drives account for 37 percent of all car trips, and use a lot of fuel.
"Take any given point in the city and draw a one-mile radius around it, and you've got 10,000 people who live within that radius. Our focus is really on those short bike trips ... to the grocery store and to get the kids to school," Crawford said.
"The question is: How do we get people out of the mindset of getting into their car?"
This same question was asked in hilly San Francisco, where chilly fog and geography are a challenge for getting people to bike to work and school.
The increase in San Francisco cyclists since 2008 came after the city spent $4.5 million in public money on 23 miles of new bicycle lanes stretching from the bay to the Pacific Ocean. Dedicated, separated bike lanes have been sprouting up on streets throughout the city and have made cycling safer.
It's not just major cities reacting to residents' call for more bike-friendly projects.
Davis in Northern California has one of the highest rates of bicycling in the nation, with 17 percent of its 64,000 residents using a bike to commute to work and 41 percent calling bikes their primary mode of transportation, according to a study by the Bicycle Federation of America.
Throughout the state, cities have spent millions in state, federal and local dollars on programs and seen the number of cyclists increase, according to Susan Handy, a professor of environmental policy and planning in the University of California, Davis' Transportation Technology and Policy Program.
Changing attitudes about cars caused by climate change have helped these efforts, Handy said. Also, people in their twenties and thirties have adopted biking in larger numbers than previous generations, Handy said.
"I think all these factors are coming together at this moment in time to create a renaissance in bicycling as a mode of transportation. Whether it will be a passing fad or a lasting trend, time will tell, but I'm betting on the latter," she said.
Jason Dearen can be reached at: www.twitter.com/JHDearen
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