The Two-Wheel Commute
With a drastic rise over the past decade in the number of workers who use bicycles to commute to and from work, experts say there are a number of simple things HR leaders can do to keep that momentum building in their own organization.
By Andrew R. McIlvaine
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people who bike to work increased by 60 percent during the past decade. Approximately 786,000 Americans commuted by bicycle, up from 488,000 in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.
Although people who bike to work account for less than 1 percent of all commuters, cities such as Portland, Ore., have seen their rates of bicyclist commuters grow substantially: 6.1 percent of commuters bike to work in Portland, up from 1.8 percent in 2000, while the bicycle-commuting rate in Minneapolis has gone from 1.9 percent to 4.1 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s report, titled Modes Less Traveled -- Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States: 2008-2012.
"In recent years, many communities have taken steps to support more transportation options, such as biking and walking," Brian McKenzie, a sociologist at the Census Bureau and author of the report, told USA Today. Those steps have included creating more bike lanes on roads and setting up bike-share programs, he said.
In France, the government recently announced a six-month pilot project in which 20 companies and institutions employing a total of 10,000 people will pay their employees the equivalent of 34 cents per kilometer biked to work. France’s Transport Minister, Frederic Cuvillier, told Reuters that a second project on a larger scale will be launched if the pilot is successful.
Here in the United States, the Bicycle Commuter Act of 2008 is a transportation fringe benefit that lets employers reduce their payroll taxes by providing employees who bike to work at least three days per week a subsidy of up to $20 per month, in the form of pre-tax reimbursements for bike-related expenses, such as bike repair or replacement. The benefit is intended to put cyclists on the same footing as other employees who receive subsidies for parking or using public transit.
Wesley High is a big advocate of biking to work. High, an IT specialist at Phelps, a marketing-communications firm, helps manage LA Bike Trains, a nonprofit that organizes groups of bicyclists in the region to ride to work together. He says he’s lost 30 pounds and saved thousands of dollars in gas money during the past three years by biking the 15 miles each way from his home to the company’s office in Santa Monica, Calif.
"Driving to work in the Los Angeles-Santa Monica area is not fun at all," he says. "Biking to work takes me the same amount of time as driving would, and I don’t have to worry about finding a parking space."
At Specialized Bicycle Components, the 1,400-employee firm’s "Cool Commute" program pays workers $1 each way for riding their bikes to work or carpooling or vanpooling, says Brandon Bouwkamp, the firm's head of people and culture. For vanpooling, the company leases vans equipped with bike racks so employees can ride in to work and then bike home at the end of the day if they wish, he says.
"We encourage biking to work -- it aligns directly to a broader vision that riding bikes tends to improve people’s lives," says Bouwkamp.
However, biking can also be hazardous, as attorney Robert Stoney can attest. Stoney, a partner at Fairfax, Va.-based Blankingship & Keith, has represented clients in approximately three dozen bike/car collisions.
"Cyclists, and pedestrians, are no match for two tons of steel," he says.
Stoney, who bikes to work when the weather is pleasant and has three teenage children who also bike regularly, says it’s important for communities to not only have dedicated bicycle lanes on roads, but to post signage reminding drivers they’re sharing the road with two-wheel commuters.
"The basic psychology of drivers -- and cyclists -- is that they’re not really focused on the fact that others are also on the road," he says.
One of the biggest dangers occurs when drivers are making right turns at a red stoplight, says Stoney. Drivers are looking to the left for oncoming traffic as they turn and may not see cyclists and pedestrians approaching the crosswalk from the right before they accelerate.
"Two dozen of the three dozen cyclist/driver cases I’ve been involved in have involved the right-turn-on-red scenario," says Stoney.
His firm distributes stickers free of charge that motorists can affix to their driver's-side window, reminding them to look to the right to ensure the path is clear before turning. The stickers can be ordered on his firm’s website at www.bklawva.com.
Although the task of making communities more cyclist-friendly is a regional concern and not something that individual companies and HR leaders can address themselves, there are nonetheless many things HR can do to help employees who are interested in bike commuting, says Jamie Ortiz, a San Diego-based public-relations executive who does publicity work for the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.
These include providing bike racks or allowing employees to store their bikes in or near their work areas, helping employees map out ideal bike routes and -- perhaps most importantly -- either providing shower facilities on-site or negotiating with nearby facilities such as gyms to allow employees to use the showers there, she says.
And, despite the obvious health benefits of biking to work regularly, Bouwkamp advises his fellow HR professionals not to lean too hard on the wellness message.
"It can be really intimidating for some people to get back on a bike if they haven’t been on one in a while," he says. "Any program to encourage this should be easy, welcoming and fun. If we just think about it as a replacement for the car, then we’re going to actually miss out on the joy that biking to work can bring."
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