SEBRING — About four days a week, Jeremy Freeze bikes to Florida Hospital Heartland alongside motorcycles, cars, pickups and trucks.
“It’s about 14 to 20 miles, depending on which way I go home,” said Freeze, 37, manager of the sleep lab, who commutes from north Avon Park.
Unlike cooler Northern states, Florida’s rainy season’s are hot, sticky and wet. That makes bike commuting seasonal for Freeze. But he has a car, so why in the heck would he bike to work at all?
“Mainly, I just do it for the physical aspect,” Freeze said. In 2009, he got involved in Heartland Triathlon, and he also runs. “Since then, I’ve lost 100 pounds.”
While bicyclists account for just 0.6 percent of all commuters, the number of Americans who biked to their jobs increased 60 percent, from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 during the 2008-2012 period, the U.S. Census said.
U.S. cities seeing increases: 6.1 percent of workers bike in Portland, Ore., up from 1.8 percent; in Minneapolis, the rate rolled from 1.9 percent to 4.1 percent.
In 1980, 5.6 percent of workers hiked to work, and that rate declined to 2.9 percent by 2000. In the 2008-2012 period, walk-to-workers remained unchanged. Bostonians led large cities at 15.1 percent.
On Wednesday morning, about a dozen men and women rode their bikes, showered at Legacy Bikes in Sebring, then went to work.
After people learn the benefits of regular exercise and how fun it is ride with family and friends, they integrate cycling into their daily routines, said Dan Andrews, Legacy’s co-owner.
Friday is Bike to Work Day, a National Bike Month event. “We have quite a few who are going to participate,” Andrews said, including Freeze and Sebring City Attorney Bob Swaine. Their group, the Highlands Pedalers, has advertised its thanks to motorists on the three electronic billboards.
“For giving us space on the roadways,” Andrews said. “It’s always an educational process for cyclists to inform motorists that we have the same rights on the roadway.”
Highlands County has a wealth of sidewalks and multi-use paths for slower moving recreational bicyclists, joggers and roller skaters: Sebring Parkway, Memorial Drive, Highlands Hammock State Park and Lake Jackson.
“They are perfect for that,” Andrews said.
Club cyclists pedal at 20-25 mph, so they must share streets and highways. “Those paths are not conducive for that. When we’re going down Hammock Road, we do not ride on the bike path. That is dangerous. We, as a club, feel like it’s our responsibility to share that message and help get the word out.”
While Highlands County probably hasn’t seen a 60 percent increase in biking to work, said Andrews, who has been a bicycle mechanic or shop owner since 1995, “I’ve seen a significant increase. And I think there are two reasons for that: one is fitness. More and more customers, they ride to work because of the opportunity to get exercise. And as fuel prices have gone up, more and more people are supplementing their daily drive and riding.”
Highlands County’s rural roads have no or small shoulders. Andrews reads bike trade journals, which write about how cities like Seattle and Minneapolis have embraced bicyclists. “It’s part of the infrastructure. They’ve created it with an alternative transportation mindset. All the roadways have big shoulders.”
“In recent years, many communities have taken steps to support more transportation options, such as bicycling and walking,” said Brian McKenzie, a Census Bureau sociologist and the report’s author. “For example, many cities have invested in bike share programs, bike lanes and more pedestrian-friendly streets.”
“My wife and I frequently ride our bikes when we decide to go out for dinner,” Freeze said. “And we right for the overall enjoyment of it. My wife and I going to North Carolina this summer, and we want to ride the Outer Banks.” They hope to cover 240 miles over six days, said Freeze, whose longest ride is sometimes 50 or 60 miles.
Andrews and his family live next to Lake Jackson. “We ride to have dinner downtown, and if our son has Boy Scouts or my daughter has play practice, we will sometimes ride.”
What should Highlands County and its municipalities do to make walking and bicycling an even greater trend?
That’s not as possible here, Andrews said. “We have to recognize what we are. We are a rural community. We are not The Villages or Celebration. We are not a walkable community, where most of our resources are a half-mile from home. We’re too spread out.”
National Bike Month Events
May 16/Bike to Work Day
May 16, 6 p.m./Family Ride Night Cruise at Legacy Bicycles
May-12-16/Ride to Work Week
May 21, 7 p.m./Ride of Silence, Sebring Civic Center, honoring cyclists killed or injured while riding
Biking by the numbers
1.1 percent/Highest rate of biking to work, in the West.
0.3 percent/Lowest rate of biking to work, in the South.
19.3 minutes/Median commute time for bicyclists
0.8 percent/Men likely to bike to work.
0.3 percent/Women likely to bike to work.
0.9 percent/Those with a graduate or professional degrees who bike to work.
0.7 percent/Those with a high school diploma who bike to work.
1.5 percent/Those with an income of $10,000 or less commuted to work by bicycle.
0.3 percent/African-Americans who biked to work.