HAMMONTON—With many people having been forced to stay at home as a result of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), families were looking for ways to stay both entertained and fit at the same time. One pastime in particular seems to be on the rise: bicycling.
“It seems to me as I’ve been going out there are more and more people using their bikes to get around town, whether they’re commuting or doing errands or just out for exercise and recreation. That’s a good thing,” Dan Bachalis, chairman of the Hammonton Environmental Commission, said.
Jason Bradley of Pro Pedals Bike Shop concurred with Bachalis. “There’s been a definite uptick in sales and repairs. There’s a lot of new-type riders. We have a lot of new customers,” Bradley said.
Bradley said that the increase in customers seemed to be a response to the boredom brought on by the stay-at-home order.
“People are looking for something to do, if you can get out and do it. Once you get a bike, it’s pretty cheap,” Bradley said.
“We want to encourage more people to be out there with pedal power. Number one, it’s healthy. Number two, it’s great for our environment. Number three, it’s another way for us to really connect as a community.”Kevin Friel, Hammonton Police Chief
Hammonton Police Chief Kevin Friel noted that bicycling carries many benefits.
“We want to encourage more people to be out there with pedal power. Number one, it’s healthy. Number two, it’s great for our environment. Number three, it’s another way for us to really connect as a community,” Friel said.
Local bicyclist Lisa Varesio said that such benefits play a big role in her dedication to the hobby.
“I try to ride it as many places as possible. We need to clean our air up and be a little conscious about the earth, so if I can clean up my little footprint in life, it helps somewhere down the road,” Varesio said.
Varesio, a cancer survivor, first started bicycling as a way to get in shape, and soon found herself taking part in charity rides.
“The first ride I did, I think I did 32 miles. I thought it was pretty cool. It’s better than running, it’s not hard on your joints and you kind of feel like a kid again, being on your bike. Since then, I’ve done numerous charity rides, including three centuries— which are 100 miles; I built up to them. The thing with biking is, when you do the charity rides, it’s not a race. The only race is with yourself,” Varesio said.
When she’s not taking part in charity rides, Varesio enjoys bicycling locally.
“I have my little routes in Hammonton that I’ll do, and sometimes I’ll go up to Mullica Township and do longer routes. It’s such a great area to ride in, because it’s flat, it’s fast and there might be a couple of little hills here and there to challenge yourself. You don’t get bored, because you’re not doing the same thing over and over again,” Varesio said.
Jayson Resch, a member of the Hammonton Bicycle Advisory Committee, said that the various land- and cityscapes in Hammonton make it especially appealing to bicyclists. “In Hammonton, what’s unique is that you can be biking in a neighborhood or in town and hit up the park— going over to Hammonton Lake Park—or you can get lost out on the country roads of 13th, 14th or 15th Street. People are very gracious here, and courteous to the bike riders. There’s a lot of farmland out there. We’ve got a couple of routes that we like to do on that side of town,” Resch said.
Resch said that he and his wife, Katie, are not avid road-bikers; in- stead, they prefer off-road biking, which are aplenty in and around Hammonton.
“The convenience to Batsto and Wharton State Forest and the mountain bike trails and dirt roads that are there are very nice. We bike Hammonton Lake Park, those trails on the other side of the lake that are part of the cross-country running course. There are some beautiful areas here, and you have that combination of the community and the downtown and then right into the farmland,” Resch said.
That scenery also appeals to Ben Ott, who said that, unlike in a motor vehicle, bicycling affords more time to look at various houses and wildlife. What appeals to him most, however, is that bicycling simultaneously offers exercise and transportation.
“I tried running and sports and the impact on the body was always pretty painful. Biking is super low-impact on your joints and body. It may hurt you in the seat for the first week but even that goes away. I bike mainly to downtown, to work and to the gym. It’s a great warmup to a workout, so it’s excellent to ride 20 minutes before a high-intensity workout just to loosen everything up,” Ott said.
Ott also enjoys the fact that bicycling is an activity that can be done as a family.
“There is a bike for everyone, which makes it super fun for the family. We have the trailers for kids, the seat on the back, and smaller bikes for the older kids. Everyone gets to come along,” Ott said.
Resch said that family appeal is part of the reason he joined the Bicycle Advisory Committee, in hopes that he could help with the development of more safe bicycle lanes.
“It’s one thing that’s kind of missing from Hammonton: a biking and running path that’s not on a street. As somebody who’s an avid biker, I wanted to spread the word and hopefully develop some stuff for my kids for when they go out on their bikes. I would love to see rails-to-trails; it really brings people together,” Resch said.
Rails-to-trails often take existing abandoned railroad beds and convert them to trails for bicyclists and pedestrians. Bachalis noted that work has been proceeding apace on the proposed extension of the town’s existing bike path.
“The town is working on finalizing that stuff so that they can get the work started. That will run from the 11th Street entrance of the train station, up 11th, then it’ll hang a left across 11th onto the old Reading Railroad bed right by Sun Coast Sales and Service Co. It’ll run along the railroad bed until it gets to Veterans Way. Then it’ll hang a left there and come out on Egg Harbor Road. They’re supposed to be finding a way to link that piece to the existing bike path that picks up on the other side of Hammonton Lake Park and runs along Egg Harbor Road to Ninth Street,” Bachalis said.
“The state department of transportation has a local planning assistance unit that provides free planning assistance for that sort of thing….This is assistance that is provided free to the municipality. DOT contracts with a planning agency, and they do the work….In addition to the plan—and this was totally unexpected—they’re going to compile all of these materials and create a new bicycle and pedestrian circulation element for the master plan. That, in itself, is probably worth $15,000 or $20,000. In addition to all their time and all the work they’re doing, it’s just incredible. Frankly, it’s a dream come true.”Dan Bachalis, Chairman, Hammonton Environmental Commission
Bachalis also talked about another development in Hammonton that will benefit bicyclists and pedestrians.
“The state department of transportation has a local planning assistance unit that provides free planning assistance for that sort of thing. It can be very focused, if the municipality wants that, or it can be very broad and comprehensive. I was looking to get the maximum effect for the town, so I said, can we get a comprehensive bi- cycle and pedestrian plan to look at best routes around town, how to improve our infrastructure, either street-striping painting or signage or crossing lights or whatever it takes to improve things for the safety and comfort of pedestrians and bicyclists?” Bachalis said.
Bachalis said that it took several years, but the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) Planning Assistant Unit is finally ready to assist Hammonton with its project.
“This is assistance that is provided free to the municipality. DOT contracts with a planning agency, and they do the work. They look at the data that we’ve got—accident data, other traffic volume data. They look at the condition of various roads around town. They are going to have public input sessions. They’re going to be advising the council as they go along.They’re going to get feedback from the steering committee about the various draft materials they develop,” Bachalis said.
Bachalis estimated that the work provided by the DOT will equate to $100,000 or more in free assistance to the town.
“They’re going to be looking at a lot of material, doing a lot of fieldwork, putting together a lot of stuff for us. In addition to the plan—and this was totally unexpected—they’re going to compile all of these materials and create a new bicycle and pedestrian circulation element for the master plan. That, in itself, is probably worth $15,000 or $20,000. In addition to all their time and all the work they’re doing, it’s just incredible. Frankly, it’s a dream come true,” Bachalis said.
With these programs in place, Hammonton should continue to improve its reputation as a great place to bicycle. Friel advises, though, that one should be ever-vigilant while doing so.
“It’s important to do a safety check of the bicycle just to make sure that all of the components are working well. Make sure that the chain is properly affixed. Make sure that you have proper tire pressure. Make sure your gears and your brake cables and brakes are functioning properly, because it’s a really bad time to find out that something’s not working right when you’re in an emergent need t“The state department of transportation has a local planning assistance unit that provides free planning assistance for that sort of thing.o stop, or very far away from your home. It’s really bad to have to walk your bike back because you aren’t prepared,” Friel said.
Friel should know; for a time, he was the police department’s bicycle patrol officer, which he said was one of his favorite periods of his career.
“It’s definitely an easy way for community policing, a way for an officer to interact directly with the public. There isn’t the big metal crate around the person, so you’re more approachable. You get a more in-depth perspective of the community and everything that’s going on. It’s a great way to be visible, and it’s something I certainly want to bring back as we increase the number of officers that we have and get to the point where I can deploy officers on bicycles,” Friel said.
Friel said that the training for becoming a bicycle patrol officer includes bike safety, using the bicycle as a policing tool and safely navigating through various obstacles, and also has lasting physical benefits.
“You gain a lot of great balance and abilities by going through this training course. I can stand still on a bicycle for almost a couple of minutes, just because of the way they teach you how to ride. When navigating through crowds, you have to be able to do it safely. It’s almost like becoming one with the bike,” Friel said.
His duties as chief of police preclude him from patrolling on a bicycle, but that doesn’t stop Friel from taking his bike out from time to time. “I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, but anytime we have our community events where it’s possible to do so—the Blueberry Festival, during the carnival, things of that nature—I like to try to get back up on the bike. It’s a really great community policing tool, it’s a way to easily get around large groups of people, especially when you have closed roadways. It’s a very safe way to do that,” Friel said.
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Joseph F. Berenato for The Hammonton Gazette, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.