Saturday, July 12, 2008

Taking To Two Wheels

Use of bikes, mopeds on rise in Long Beach

By Joseph Kellard

Not everyone is upset with $4-plus gas prices. In fact, some not only welcome them, they actively root for them to rise fourfold.

“I’m the only guy who hopes gas goes up to $20 a gallon,” John Merritt, owner of Buddy’s Bikes on West Beech Street for the past 30 years, said half-jokingly. “Business has never been so good.”

Mark Marshak, a Long Beach resident who sells mopeds at Scooter City in Island Park, said, “I’m about the only person in town happy about gas prices.” Marshak opened his shop in June of 2006, and sold 15 mopeds by the end of that year. He sold 85 in 2007. In February, before gas hit $4 a gallon, he noticed that more people were buying his mopeds, and already this year he has sold 135.

“I knew this was going to happen,” Marshak said. “I felt it and made provisions and have stockpiles of mopeds in my warehouse.”

With its 2-mile boardwalk and stretches of straight streets, Long Beach has long been inviting to cyclists. And while bike shop owners like Merritt say higher gas prices have positively affected business of late, the city’s notorious problems with parking have made cycling nearly a necessity for many residents.

“I think people continue to buy bikes because it’s always been like this in Long Beach — that is, it’s just easier to ride a bicycle than to drive a car and try to find a parking spot,” said Ray Fusillo, who owns Long Beach Bicycle on East Park Avenue.

For the past two years, West End resident Peter Meyers had pedaled to the Long Beach train station on Park Avenue each weekday so that when he returns at night, he doesn’t have to circle his neighborhood looking for a place to park. He starts his day by riding his hybrid racing/mountain bike along the boardwalk on his way to the railroad station. “There’s nothing better than riding on the boardwalk each morning,” said Meyers, who works at Lincoln Center and catches the 8:08 train to Penn Station.

He and other cyclists have noticed that many more commuters are riding their bikes to the station each day, and that additional bike racks that have been installed around the station have filled up.

“The number of bikes out here is insane now,” said Jennifer Hicks, who has taken the 7:04 to Manhattan each morning for the past three years. “Now it’s hard to find a space on the bike racks.”

Like Meyers, Hicks rides her bike for both the convenience and the exercise. She also uses it on weekends to run errands to the post office, library and supermarket. “I grew up on Fire Island — you have to have a bike there,” she said, “so I’m used to riding.”

Roger Gengo, the head custodian at East School, who cycles to work every day, is among those who never lost his childhood interest in bike riding. “We all rode bikes as kids,” said Gengo, who lives in East Atlantic Beach. “It’s kind of part of everyone’s life. Some of us went back to it, others never try riding again.”

For years Gengo rode his bike in triathlons, and after he stopped competing he turned to cycling for transportation. Today he rides a Raleigh bike to the local supermarket and the beach, having built contraptions to hold his groceries and surfboard.

While Gengo drives a 1997 Ford Expedition, he uses his bike primarily because parking in his neighborhood is “horrendous,” he said. “Also, a lot of things annoy you on the road when you’re driving your car. The bike is heaven sent.”

Cosmo Donato, a general contractor who lives and works in Long Beach, bought a scooter from Marshak last year to do routine estimates and minor jobs instead of burning gas in his work truck.

“Especially from June to September, there’s no place to park,” Donato said. “So to go see a customer by truck is ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense.”

Donato also hops on his moped when he needs to buy small items that are easy to carry, and on weekends he rides it to Island Park, where he docks his boat. The moped gets 80 miles to the gallon and costs him $75 a year in insurance.

Marshak’s mopeds start at $1,300 and go as high as $5,000. Their top speeds rang from 30 to 80 mph, most of them get between 80 and 100 miles to the gallon, and insurance can run as low as $50 a year.

“It’s cost-effective when you think about what gas and insurance cost,” he said.

Marshak said that many Long Beach residents, from the West End to the canals, have bought mopeds from him to ride to the train stations in Long Beach and Island Park each morning. Mike Puma, an NYPD detective who lives on the Baldwin-Oceanside border, bought one a month ago to get to and from the train station, but on weekends he rides it to the West End beaches. Puma’s moped goes 100 miles on $5 worth of gas.

“When I went to register it,” he said, “the woman at the DMV said that she’s registering more scooters than cars right now.”

While the state Department of Motor Vehicles was unable to provide statistics on the number of mopeds registered so far in 2008, its data shows that Nassau County had 687 registered mopeds in 2007, the third-highest county total in the state, behind Suffolk (1,069) and Erie (741).

Long Beach restaurateur Tom Corning registered his first moped this year, retiring a Volkswagen Bug he used for deliveries. Corning’s drivers now use the moped at his Caffe Laguna in the West End and ride a three-wheel bike at Olive Oil’s, his other restaurant, in Point Lookout. He estimated that he saves hundreds of dollars on gas a month.

“It’s great on gas, and the biggest thing in the West End is the parking,” Corning said. “It’s really convenient. My delivery guys love it.”

West End resident Susan Hilberer said she has noticed that more delivery businesses and residents in her neighborhood are using mopeds. Hilberer is now on her third moped, having bought her first a few years ago from Black Ice, a shop on West Beech Street that has since closed, in order to avoid having to park her PC Cruiser.

“But it was so much fun to drive, I started taking it everywhere,” said Hilberer, who rides her moped to Waldbaum’s on Park Avenue, Roosevelt Field and even as far as Montauk. Its speedometer tops out at 50, and she gets 80 miles out of $6 in gas.

Does she ever drive her car anymore? “Yes, for long trips and car- pooling,” she said. “But if it means losing my parking space on the weekend, I’m not driving it.”

Despite the growing popularity of mo-peds, bikes are still king in Long Beach. While the Hampton cruiser-style models have been the rage with kids in the past few years, both Fusillo and Merritt said that more adults of varying ages are buying them, too.

“They’re just very comfortable, and they require less maintenance and are easier to ride,” Fusillo said about his cruisers, which start at $216.

Merritt said that most of the bikes in his shop are priced in the same range and go has high as $400, and that the cruisers remain the most popular model in town. “Everybody’s riding them now,” he said.

“There’s no maintenance, there’s no cables, it’s one speed, it’s got wide, comfortable handlebars so there’s no leaning over. It’s a perfect bike for Long Beach.”

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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