It seemed preposterous that the Bay Area's smog control agency was telling its employees not to ride bikes on the job.

It was ridiculed on Bay Area blogs, but the Bay Area Air Quality Management District had a serious explanation: Insurance wouldn't cover bike accidents on the job.

As the East Bay's 15th Bike-to-Work Day dawns Thursday, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District will officially resolve its bicycling quandary. It will unveil its new fleet of bikes and helmets — including a fold-up bike to take on BART during peak hours — to satisfy its insurance company that it has control over bike safety on the job.

What the puzzling episode illustrates is more than an abundance of legal caution. To the minds of bicycling advocates, it shows that cycling may have graduated from mere recreation to a serious mode of transportation.

The organizers of Bike-to-Work Day were compelled to purchase $5 million worth of liability insurance for their monthlong Team Bike Challenge, which partners new, experienced and well-known bike riders to see how many days they can ride to work in May.

In Emeryville, police are cracking down and issuing tickets to bicyclists who run red lights or stop signs. One area environmental advocate said he received a $300-plus fine after being ticketed recently.

"I dream of the day when police will pull over a kid, pull over an adult or a bike and say, 'You have all the same responsibilities, you have all the same rights, and you should have to pay the same penalties,''' said Robert Raburn, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

It's not that Raburn, police, judges or actuaries want people to suffer for the sake of cycling. They say it's that they want to see bicycle travel, commuting in particular, become less of a fringe activity.

In a grave coincidence, organizers were dismayed by the air district's forecast of unhealthy air quality for some of the Bay Area's eastern communities. Air pollution regulators advise people biking home from work to delay their trip until 6 p.m. to avoid the highest smog concentrations, which usually are recorded in late afternoon.

"Bicyclists should be fine in the morning," said Karen Schkolnick, an air district spokeswoman, "but may want to delay their trip home to reduce their exposure to pollution."

The threat of smog could also be an opportunity for cyclists, Raburn said, to show that they can make a difference when it comes to getting cars off the road.

"I would like to see Bike-to-Work Day have a major impact on air quality, on traffic," he said.

Besides fretting about air quality, the air district will have a chance to show off its new fleet of company bicycles.

To deal with insurance and safety concerns, the agency recently purchased a fleet of seven new bicycles that workers can check out and ride to work-related appointments or business.

The bicycles, to be delivered Thursday to the district's San Francisco headquarters, are hybrid bikes with thick tires that are well suited for bumpy rides on city streets, Schkolnick said.

The district's self insurance policy will now cover workers while pedaling on district time, she said, eliminating earlier liability concerns.

Workers checking out the vehicles, though, will be required to attend a bicycle safety training session to make sure they know "the rules of the road," Schkolnick added.

While it may seem a little much for veteran bike commuters, the fuss over liability makes sense to Mark Gerlach, an insurance consultant who deals with worker compensation issues.

"I think it's a matter of growing pains at this point," Gerlach said of the bike-at-work trend. "As you get more and more of this, the chance that something's going to happen, and somebody's going to end up looking for a liable person, is more and more likely.''

Reach Erik N. Nelson at enelson@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6410. Read his Capricious Commuter blog at InsideBayArea.com.

Bike-to-Work Day
Organizers are expecting 100,000 commuters will pedal to work Thursday in observance of Bike-to-Work Day, launched 15 years ago in Oakland with the now-traditional pancake breakfast at City Hall, from 7 to 9 a.m.
Commuters can stop at any of 225 Energizer Stations along bike routes all over the Bay Area. For a list of locations, visit www.bayareabikes.org/btwd/.
Bicyclists heading for San Francisco (BART prohibits bikes during peak hours) can load their bikes onto the Oakland-Alameda Ferry and ride for free from Alameda's Main Street pier or Jack London Square to the Ferry Building.
If you're commuting into Oakland, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition offers free valet bike parking and free breakfast while the hotcakes last.