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Commuter Chronicles

Monday, September 29, 1997 · Page A19

©1997 San Francisco Chronicle

Easy Rider Zips Past Gridlock
Traffic, tolls raise motorcycles' appeal
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sam Taylor sniffed the cool, fresh morning air, adjusted his Gore-Tex-lined Aerostich jumpsuit so that the suit and tie underneath wouldn't rumple and climbed aboard his pearl-silver BMW R1100 RS motorcycle.

The 37-year-old stockbroker is one of thousands of Bay Area residents who leave their cars at home for a comparatively hassle-free commute on a motorcycle. Fed up with gridlocked highways and unreliable mass transit, he is willing to shoulder the added risks for a faster commute, easy parking and the envy, if not admiration, of co-workers and clients.

''The only problem with commuting by motorcycle is you never want to come to work,'' he said. ''You want to keep on going.''

There are no reliable statistics on how many people commute by motorcycle in the Bay Area. But with worsening traffic and mounting incentives -- including free bridge crossings, added parking spaces and the right to use the growing number of carpool lanes -- industry analysts, motorcycle dealers and local riders believe motocommuting could soon become trendy.

''Commuting by motorcycle is definitely a big part of our business,'' said Kari Prager, owner of California BMW Triumph in Mountain View, who said sales are up 50 percent over last year. ''With traffic getting worse and worse, people who bought a bike for weekend use are now finding themselves using it to commute, too.''

Motorcycles are the most fuel- efficient form of transportation on the road and are likely to remain that way until electric cars hit the highways in significant numbers. They take up less space, are more maneuverable and, from a motorcyclist's point of view, are a lot more fun than riding in ``a cage,'' the biker's term for car.

California, with its moderate climate and miles of rolling country roads, has historically been the motorcycle capital of the country. In the early days, it was the Hell's Angels and incidents such as the 1947 Hollister riots that inspired the Marlon Brando movie ''The Wild One.''

But that hell-raiser image has mellowed, particularly since Honda inundated the United States with its ''You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda'' ad campaign.


Instead of leather-clad toughs with long hair and tattoos, most bikers these days are in their 30s with an annual income higher than the national average, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Doctors, lawyers, business executives and bankers are regularly plopping down $15,000 or more for their cruising machines. As many as 470,000 Californians ride motorcycles, the largest number of any state, and sales have been rising every year since 1991, according to industry council statistics.

Taylor rides from his home in Larkspur to his job at the Bank of America building in San Francisco at least twice a week during the summer.

As the rising sun shimmered over the bay one recent morning, Taylor weaved through traffic on Highway 101 toward the Golden Gate Bridge, scooted through the toll gate without paying a cent and edged into one of about 800 motorcycle parking spaces downtown, paying only 50 cents for 10 hours.

It took him about 20 minutes to get to work on this day, about 15 or 20 minutes less than it would take in a car. He had to park a couple of blocks from work because most of the motorcycle spaces were taken by the time he arrived at 7:22 a.m.

''It's a great way to get to work,'' he said, running his hand through his closely cropped hair. ''I'd do it every day, but sometimes I have to keep the hair in order.''


As a motorcyclist, Taylor is allowed to squeeze between lanes and scoot by motorists stuck in traffic. Splitting lanes, however, is just one of a long list of time and money-saving advantages that motorcyclists have during commute hours.

The Golden Gate Bridge has allowed motorcycles free of charge during commute hours since 1979, and all state-owned bridges have been free to motorbikers during commute hours since 1992.

High Occupancy Vehicle (carpool) lanes also may be used by motorcyclists, by federal law.

Taylor's commute is as easy as it is largely because of the work of advocates like the Montgomery Street Motorcycle Club, of which he is a member. The club, founded in 1968 by six businessmen, helped convince San Francisco officials to provide more motorcycle parking. San Francisco has nearly doubled the number of motorcycle parking spaces from 646 in 1990 to 1,200 this year.

Businesses, transportation agencies and other cities also are beginning to consider motorcycles in their parking schemes.

BART has 625 designated motorcycle parking spaces in its 39 stations. San Jose has designated street parking for motorcycles outside San Jose State University, and city officials are discussing other potential accommodations.


Taylor and other riders say the benefits are not limited to the commute itself. They claim the ''Easy Rider'' mystique carries over into business relationships as well.

''It's a humanizing factor,'' said Steve Anderson, 58, a Nob Hill investment adviser who visits clients throughout the Bay Area on his BMW K100RS motorcycle. ''It enables clients and business partners to drop their guard and puts them on a more personal level. I got a client once because we were the only two people who had motorcycles in the parking lot.''

But danger comes hand in hand with the joys of straddling a rumbling motorbike and giving it the gas. About 10,000 people are injured and 300 are killed in motorcycle accidents in California each year.

''You have to understand when you're on a motorcycle that everybody is your enemy,'' said Tom Hall, 65, of Point Richmond, a former president of the Montgomery Street Motorcycle Club who claims to have ridden more than 175,000 miles in 10 countries and never had a serious spill. ''When you're driving a motorcycle, you have to be aware every second and you have to love to drive.''

The California Highway Patrol sponsors a 17-hour motorcycle training program that helps reduce the risk. The state's mandatory helmet law, enacted in 1991, helped reduce the number of fatalities from 569 in 1990 to 291 in 1994.

The risk is the price you pay for the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, said Paul Spencer, who rides between his home in Pleasanton and his job as an engineer at Silicon Graphics in Mountain View every day, rain or shine.

''This is a chance to get on a high-performance vehicle that gets 45 miles per gallon and ride every day,'' said Spencer, who owns a $14,000 BMW and a $10,000 Ducati.

''I've seen deer and other wildlife on my way to work, and on my way home I can take back roads and enjoy the scenery. With our weather, it makes no sense not to do it.''

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