More cyclists nationwide, but not in Merced

Commuting to work by pedaling a bicycle has become much more popular than a decade ago – but not in Merced County, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since 2000, the number of people cycling to work has increased nationwide by 60 percent, the largest increase by any single mode of transportation. Bike riders make up 0.6 percent of all commuters, but some large cities like Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis have more than doubled the percentage of riders during that decade.

According to the census numbers, Merced County’s 0.8 percent of bicycle commuters in 2000 has fallen to 0.4 percent in 2012, or from 605 to 372. That’s despite the county and its six cities adopting plans that support bike travel.

Matt Fell, transportation director for the Merced County Association of Governments, said news of the countywide numbers was surprising.

Merced County’s rural landscape poses a challenge to officials looking to improve a cyclist’s options. Fell said many of the communities in the county are essentially starting from scratch. “That is definitely a big challenge,” he said.

The county’s Regional Bikeway Plan from 2008 states its intent to connect systems in communities as well as major destinations throughout the county.

Making the connections and increasing ridership is part of the county’s plan to improve air quality in the region, Fell said. The more people who bike to work, the fewer emissions pumped into the air and fewer cars wearing down roads.

The association pays Commute Connection, a San Joaquin County-based council of governments, to promote biking and ridesharing in Merced County, Fell said.

The city of Merced has the most extensive series of bike paths and lanes in the county. It adopted its 2013 Bicycle Transportation Plan in September, with an assessment that its more than 100 upgrades could push ridership up by almost 700 people.

The city has about 22 miles of Class I bike paths, which are paved paths not shared with cars, like those along Bear Creek.

Councilman Mike Murphy said he would be surprised as well to hear of a decrease in ridership. “The city of Merced has wonderful Class I bike paths that are as good or better than any other community in Central California,” he said.

Since 2004, the city has completed 27 bike-related projects. The 2013 plan calls for $2.4 million in funds for the next three years, and 106 projects in five years.

Funding for the project will come from many sources, including local (bicycle registration and licensing fees, city of Merced public facilities impact fees), regional (the motor vehicle emission reduction program and Transportation Development Act), state and federal.

“We’ve got a lot to offer,” Murphy said. “We’re just trying to improve upon that by increasing the number of bike paths and bike lanes.”

The city also is counting on improved transportation projects, such as the bike plan, to account for 22 percent of the forecast reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the city’s 2012 Climate Action Plan.

Murphy said the next step for improving Merced’s offering is selecting a corridor that can take riders north or south from one end of the city to the other.

Many advocates are excited about the bike-related improvements happening statewide. This week, California was deemed the ninth-friendliest biking state in the country, jumping from 19th place last year, according to rankings by the League of American Bicyclists.

California leaped into the top 10 mainly because the state committed to increasing bike funding 30 percent last year after the federal government cut back on bike and pedestrian funding. The league also cited the state’s new law requiring drivers to give cyclists three feet of space when passing on the street.

Dwight Ewing, chairman of the Merced Bicycle Coalition, said he’s commuted to his job at Kevin’s Bikes in Merced for about six years. The 20-minute commute is an easy ride, he said, especially with the Class I paths along the creeks that run through Merced.

He said he appreciates having bike lanes throughout the city. They seem to get use from many riders, he said, but he wishes more people would take advantage of them.

He’s had mixed feelings about the dollars going into bikeway improvements in Merced. “If you do it, that’s awesome,” he said. “But if no one actually uses it, that’s kind of lame.”

For an interactive map of the census that breaks down bike commuters by neighborhood, go to www.census.gov.