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Recumbent Pedalling Beats Car Commute For USGS Mapper
Released: 5/11/2001

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Pat Jorgenson 1-click interview
Phone: 650-329-4011

While some folks may make a special effort to ride their bikes to work on the appointed day, May 17, it will be just another day to sit back and take it easy for John Fisher, who lives in Fremont and works as a cartographer at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park.

For nearly three years Fisher has been making the 17-mile commute on his recumbent - one of those horizontal bicycles that allow the rider to lean back, instead of forward, and rest his or her bottom on a wide, comfortable seat, rather than the narrow, hard seats found on most bicycles.

Fisher began biking to work five years ago, when, at the age of 50, he realized that he needed to get more exercise. "Since I had to go to work everyday anyway, and I didn’t want to join a gym, I figured that the most efficient thing to do was to fill the commuting time with exercise, and that meant getting a bicycle," Fisher said. But having grown up in the age of fat-tired, wide seated Schwinns, he found it hard to enjoy riding the skinny-tired, narrow-saddled 10-speed. "Oh sure, it was great having those gears for the pull up to the top of the Dumbarton Bridge," Fisher said, "but leaning forward over the handlebars and riding on that hard, narrow seat, were not my idea of a good time."

While biking to work and around town, Fisher noticed a few people riding the "horizontal bicycles," and learned of a place in Watsonville that built them. So, in the summer of 1998 Fisher drove down to Watsonville, took one for a test drive, and was convinced that this was the combination exercise-commute vehicle that he had been looking for. Since buying the recumbent in July 1998, Fisher has driven a car to work only once.

Fisher, who likes to get up early, usually leaves Fremont at about 5:30 a.m., and arrives at the USGS on Middlefield Road in Menlo Park, about 6:30. On the return trip he leaves Menlo Park around 3 p.m., and arrives home about four. "And that’s a constant, every day," Fisher says, "because traffic accidents or other factors that can bring auto traffic to a crawl or stop for up to an hour, don’t affect cyclists; we just roll right on by. On many days my commute time now is less than it was when I was driving a car."

Not that Fisher is a speedster or a daredevil. He maintains a steady 15-20 miles per hour pace and observes all traffic signs; and he’s never had an accident on a bike or the recumbent. Because the rider is at a lower level, many people think that pedaling a recumbent looks more dangerous than riding a conventional bicycle, but Fisher hasn’t found that to be the case. "Actually they’re much safer," says Fisher. "If something does happen, you don’t have far to fall, and you’re certainly not going to go flying over the handlebars." The handlebars on a recumbent, in fact, are something the rider reaches out to, rather than down to, as are the pedals, and the rider sits about 20 inches above the ground, rather than the 30-40 inches on a conventional bike. To make sure that he isn’t "overlooked" by motorists, Fisher, like most serious riders, has a flag on a six-foot wand, attached to the rear of his recumbent. And, he always wears a helmet.

Weather is no more of a factor for recumbent riders than for other cyclists. Because he leaves so early in the morning, a jacket is always part of Fisher’s riding gear, and during the winter months waterproof, lightweight rain gear keeps him dry. A fender on the 27-inch rear wheel prevents the "slurry stripe" that often identifies those who ride fenderless bikes, and the durable plastic fairing that serves as a windshield, also offers protection from the rain.

In addition to the fitness benefits that he derives from riding the recumbent, Fisher says the vehicle literally pays off in other ways, every time he passes, rather than stops at a gas station. Even before gasoline went to $2 per gallon, Fisher figures that when you add in the cost of tires, maintenance and depreciation, driving the recumbent is saving him about $40 per week. That’s mainly because he relies on the long, lean machine as his primary vehicle, by using it in the afternoon and on weekends to go to the grocery store and run other errands. Large saddlebags attached to each side of the rear fender offer enough room to carry two bags of groceries or other merchandise.

Within a year of purchasing the recumbent, Fisher sold the pickup truck that he formerly had driven to work, leaving only one car in the family, which cuts down on registration and insurance costs. "When I started on this exercise kick I sure never thought that I’d give up my truck, but it got so that I was just not driving it very much."

In spite of, or maybe because of spending 10 to 20 hours per week on his recumbent, Fisher doesn’t use it to extend his social life. He is aware of weekend recreational rides by those who belong to recumbent clubs, but says he’s not interested in such group outings. "My time off is filled with family activities," says Fisher, who is the father of four adult children and five grandchildren. "I do a lot of things with them, and see my recumbent merely as a practical way to get to work."

Sixty-five-year-old Ted McKee, who has been biking to work at the USGS for 40 years, switches to rollerblades during the summer months - just for the fun of it. Sixty-eight-year-old Rowland Tabor figures he’s cycled a total of 65,000 miles from his home in Portola Valley to the USGS, over the past 30 years.

Because he got in the game a little later in life, Fisher is not likely to match or break McKee’s and Tabor’s records, at least not while he’s working at the USGS, but because of the comfort, safety and economic factors, Fisher says he may still be running errands on his recumbent when he’s in his nineties. "I’m just sorry I didn’t discover it sooner," says Fisher, "and right now, I can’t imagine ever giving it up."

Although Fisher is the only USGS employee who rides a recumbent, he has lots of company when he wheels into work. About 70 of the 700 Menlo Park USGSers ride a bicycle to work three or more days a week, and several of them commute more than 10 miles each way, every day. Two of the Survey’s newer buildings have shower rooms, where employees can shower and change clothes, if they work up a sweat. In addition to the cyclists, another 15-20 USGSers walk to work, nearly every day, and some who live in cities on the peninsula, take advantage of the CalTrain bike racks to combine cycling with public transportation. Several who live more than 30 miles from Menlo Park take advantage of van pools.

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