How Can We Make Bike Commuting “Normal”?

Lots of blogs around the Streetsblog Network are tackling issues related to bike commuting this week in honor of the upcoming Bike to Work Day on Friday. Baltimore Spokes weighs in with a post about how employers can tailor workplaces to encourage employees to ride in. Here are a few of their ideas:

20090511_bike_450.jpgInside the very popular bike room at the Environmental Protection Agency’s DC office. Photo by Eric Vance.

Be Accessible: Most folks aren’t going to want to hop on I-66 to wheel their way in. So, companies in neighborhoods near multi-use jogging and cycling trials — like Bethesda, which is close to the Capital Crescent — are more likely to lure two-wheelers. Second best are offices near roads with bike lanes (or little traffic).

Keep it Clean: [One company] chose its location specifically for its shower facilities. In buildings without them, it’s smart to negotiate a group discount at a nearby fitness center. Otherwise, the only real option for riders is a rubdown with wet wipes.

Provide Safe Parking: Outdoor bike racks are fine for cheaper wheels you won’t worry about getting damaged or stolen. But riders generally feel safer with more secure storage.

Build a Community: "If people feel like they’re alone out there doing this, it’s not worth doing," says Angela Atwood-Moore, a research associate at the National Institutes of Health. As the president of the NIH Bicycle Commuter Club, she’s been instrumental in keeping the Bethesda campus’ 600 bike commuters informed through a Web site and an e-mail list (to which 300 riders subscribe).

Show Us the Money: It also can’t hurt to offer financial incentives for ditching driving. Employers can institute the recently adopted monthly $20 tax rebate for cyclists, or go further.

Meanwhile, M-Bike.org in Detroit wants to project a different image of bike commuters. Like, they want them to look normal:

But if Metro Detroit has any hope of increasing the number of people biking to work, we need to make it look normal, starting by showing bike commuters in normal clothes.

Blue jeans. Khakis. Collared shirts. Perhaps a suit on occasion.

Biking to work doesn’t mean one must dress like Lance Armstrong. We need to show people that ride bikes to work, not cyclists that ride to work.

What are your suggestions for helping to make bike commuting a "normal" choice?

  • These are excellent tips, but Baltimore has problems far greater than no showers at work – I’ve commuted to a number of jobs without LUXURIES like showers and secure indoor locking station.

    Baltimore Spokes should do a post on why Baltimore still has no bike lanes downtown. Even if they’re planning it, it’s taking way too long.

    Just this morning, construction began on the broadway protected bike lane starting at 58th street :
    http://tr.im/leRv

  • Doug

    Parking and shower facilities are 99% of the battle. Solve those problems and you’ll see a dramatic increase in the number of people who bike to work.

    All the rest — building community, efforts to improve biking’s “image,” offering tax or financial incentives, etc. — is just gravy and may very well come if secure parking and places to clean up are more readily available. A tax credit of $20 a month is nice, but if I can’t shower at or near work and am worried about my bike being stolen or damaged, it’s more or less worthless to me. Safe roads and dedicated bike lanes are important, too, but there are already parts of New York where it’s not that hard to bike to work. The only problem is what happens when you get there.

  • Robin

    You forgot the most important part, locating your office in a high density area. Offices downtown are more easily accessible to more folks whether by transit, foot or bike. Turn back the tide of the “office park” where offices sit surround by patches of green right on top of arable farm land and nowhere near homes or businesses. This also happens to lead to a more vibrant downtown as office lunches help sustain downtown cafes and restaurants.

  • CR

    Commuting clothes need to look more like regular clothes, and not like cycling clothes (i.e. skin tight shorts and tops). If you’re a guy and you have a big gut, you should NOT be wearing tight cycling shorts and a tight, wicking top – EVER. (I once left a group ride because two dudes with big guts, man-boobs, and cycling shorts so tight I could easily identify which Bilbo Baggins was bigger, insisted on standing directly in front of me while I was sitting on the ground eating lunch. For a brief second I thought I was viewing the Pyrenees on a map of Tour de France, but was quickly brought back to reality when I barfed a little of my PB&J back into my mouth.) At least you ladies can hide your junk a little more easily (although some of you look like you shoved a Carvel Ice Cream Cake into the back of your shorts). Dudes – get some *cycling-underwear* and wear it UNDER your shorts. Get a long sleeve t-shirt or a sweatshirt of something – how much wicking-action do you need when you’re riding 5 or 10 miles? It’s not like you’re gonna freeze to death out there. Ladies – do the same with skirt or shorts – do they make cycling-“skorts” btw? They should. For the love of G-d people, have a little decorum. Treat yourself and those around you with respect.

  • I’m sorry, but a commute that requires a shower upon arrival is not ever going to be “normal”–not unless the economy gets really, really bad…

  • If a company offers parking perks or rebates to employees that cost the company money, they should offer an equal perk to bike commuters — or just start charging for the free employee parking. If there’s no bike parking but the cars have garage spaces, take a few of the garage spaces and put bike racks in them — it’s also higher visibility to remind drivers that cyclists have an equal right to that space. And businesses with directions on their website should include nearest bike racks and bike lanes and walking directions from the nearest transit stations.

  • If you live in a climate that’s mild enough that you can walk to pick up lunch in your work clothes without taking a shower afterward, you live in a climate that’s favorable to bike commuting in your work clothes as well. The problem is that we’ve been fed images of the macho-racer for so long that many people believe they have to go-like-heck every time they get on a bicycle. Slow down, keep it at a strolling pace, and you won’t need a shower when you arrive at work.

  • anonymous

    What is this Environmental Protection Association you speak of?

  • Schtu

    @ Alan

    Exactly! Let people know that a sweat free commute is also an option in many climates/seasons. Granted I have to cycle only about 6 miles a day, but once I realized I could ride my bike the European way, upright, slow, steady, briefcase in a basket and wear my work clothes, I was sold. I keep a gym bag at work with clean socks, t-shirts, boxers and a dress shirt just in case, but I have yet to break into them.

    Also, I live at the top of a steep hill. I push my bike up the last block. It is ok to push your bike up a hill. There is no shame in that.

    I just let everyone speed pass me and I have the most enjoyable commute ever.

  • bc

    99 PERCENT??!! what planet are you living on? 1 percent is safety?? Do you guys actually commute? I know there are other concerns and we just can’t talk safety all the time, but I find it ridiculous and distracting to adopt an attitude of ‘we just need to make people feel cool…’ we’re trying to tempt people to go out and not worry about sweating, but not addressing that truck buzzing you at 45 mph

  • molly

    For bike commuting to be perceived as “normal,” it must have appeal across many populations, not just within a few subcultures dominated mostly by men; more women and older adults commuting by bike will help. Agreed about the normal clothes too. I’ve gotten comfortable biking in skirts (with shorts underneath); I don’t want to have to change my clothes at work just because I’m biking.

  • Geck

    I agree. A shower shouldn’t really be necessary. Normal clothing is good too.

  • StinkyBiker

    “If you live in a climate that’s mild enough that you can walk to pick up lunch in your work clothes without taking a shower afterward, you live in a climate that’s favorable to bike commuting in your work clothes as well.”

    It very much depends on how far/fast you ride, and how you have to dress at work. My commute is almost 12 miles each way. At that distance, in order to make it to work in a reasonable amount of time (i.e., roughly comparable to my subway trip), I have to ride pretty fast, which means I will work up a sweat. At my job, I wear a suit and tie. If I were to ride in these clothes, between the sweat and the saddle friction, they’d be destroyed after only a few wearings (voice of experience here). This means I ride in cycling clothes and change at work. I don’t have access to a shower, so my choices are a)stink; b) do my best with wipes and/or washing up in the mens room. It’s important to recognize that a very large portion of New Yorkers are office workers who commute considerable distances. This puts a real ceiling on the viability of cycle commuting — not many people are willing to do what I do, and not even I do it every day.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    anonymous,

    corrected!

  • Doug

    I shouldn’t have been so glib as to suggest that safety is only a 1% concern. Of course, it’s a huge one!

    But I do believe that most of what is holding people back from choosing riding as a commuting option is the lack of secure parking and a place to clean up. Why do I believe this? Because a lot of people have absolutely no problem biking from all over the city to Central Park or Prospect Park for exercise, even people who aren’t wearing spandex or riding racing bikes.

    If you could increase parking and locker facilities in or near office buildings, you’d get more people riding to and from work. More people riding to and from work would necessitate more cycling infrastructure and it would lead to more people cycling to work. It’s a chicken-and-egg argument, I know, but I think it might be easier to convince individual companies of the benefit of bike commuting that it is to convince our elected officials to, say, build dedicated bike lanes before those pols are convinced they are necessary.

    I know from my own experience that an old office I was in had covered, protected bike racks and a small fitness room in the building with a shower and lockers. Lots of people in my company biked to work and some said it meant extra time in the day because they could combine their commute with their workout.

    Then the company moved to a building without good bike parking nor a shower. The number of people who biked to work dropped down to one guy who used wet wipes when he got to the office and a couple of other people who happened to also be members of the Crunch gym across the street. No amount of new bike lanes could get the rest of us on our bikes to get to work, especially during hot summer months when you sweat even when you ride the subway!

    And to the idea that any commute that ends with a shower is not going to convince people to ride, I disagree. Thousands of people head to the gym to workout before or after work and then shower in the locker room before heading to the office or out for the evening. Just move those showers to the office and give people a place to park their ride and they’ll bike when they can!

  • James

    In addition to the distance, which StinkyBiker more than covered, the type of terrain matters hugely too as far as the clothes one wears. Commuting from pancake-flat Brooklyn or Queens to Manhattan is one thing, but only a fool would undertake a hilly bike commute on a Dutch cruiser wearing a suit and tie. As distance increases and terrain gets tougher, the need for a high performance bike and lycra goes up.

  • Totally agree with Doug. We need the trifecta of safe storage, showers, and spandex reduction to make bikes more “normal”.

    Shorter bike rides are completely doable without getting sweaty. I did it all the time in college. However, in NYC, most of us don’t have a non-sweaty commute available to us.

    It’s “normal” enough for someone to come to work early every so often and get in an hour at the gym. These people usually shower afterwards. A mid range distance should eventually be seen as normal as a morning workout (with the added bonus of combining your commute and workout time).

    My commute is 9 miles one way. I bike further than that all the time when I’m in an exploratory mood, but it’s too far for business casual.

  • bc

    Doug, I appreciate your measured and thoughtful response, I didn’t mean to start a big fight as often happens, and I’m thankful you took it in the right spirit.

    As far as spandex reduction, I don’t see why we are hating on the people who are doing it in order to attract those that aren’t. At least “those clothes” serve a purpose (largely moisture wicking, aiding in arriving to work without being too offensive) and while I personally don’t wear bike clothes when not racing, I find it disdainful to say that those who do are doing anything wrong in any way.

    And again, I say this is a silly distraction to a serious topic. If you can’t see the 10000 positives attached to biking to work and can only focus on a few inconveniences, then you’re not going to do it that many days regardless.

  • Carice

    If you do a “european” style commute you really shouldn’t have to change or take a shower, which are big barriers to commuting. However in many/ most parts of the country you don’t have the density of European cities that supports that laid back style of commuting.
    Having commuted in rural Missouri, Houston, Salt Lake City, and Boston, I am afraid that the accumulated barriers (hygene, safety, convenience, storage, etc.) will prevent bicycle commuting from becoming “normal” in too many parts of the country unless communities change their planning and transportation infrastructure dramatically.

  • Slow down, keep it at a strolling pace, and you won’t need a shower when you arrive at work.

    I can pick up lunch from work in ten minutes. Strolling from home to work would take about two hours each way–an amount of time I am not willing to give up. Also, having strolled home after the last blackout, I can assure you that I would require a shower at the end.

  • Edwin

    James wrote “only a fool would undertake a hilly bike commute on a Dutch cruiser wearing a suit and tie. As distance increases and terrain gets tougher, the need for a high performance bike and lycra goes up.”

    I think you’re mistaken about this one. I just visited Aarhus in Denmark which is basically one steep hill after another and still saw a huge percentage cycling around, fashionably.

    Cyclists in NYC seem waaaay too competetive, and petty competetions as well. I guess it’s our American nature. I loved this bikesnob post. take a look.
    http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2009/05/indignity-of-commuting-by-bicycle_12.html

  • A good way to sweat less is to not use a backpack. Use a bike pannier or a basket to put your things in instead.

  • bc

    I loved that bikesnob too, but competition is a 2 way street (or something like that that doesn’t sound like a pun)..you don’t have to engage. guy or girl blows by you? doesn’t impact your commute unless you choose to chase him/her

  • Edwin

    Ha! the puns abound.
    In addition to all the great bike lanes and efforts from the city to make cycling more accessible here I wish they’d start educating drivers better. I think lots of American drivers don’t know how to handle bicycle riders. Making them aware our safety needs would create a better understanding of cyclists. Maybe this mutual understanding would even generate some good will on cyclists behalf towards motorists therefore reducing the “battle” between peds/cyclists and cars. Also, and this is a given, drivers need to be held accountable for their actions. duh.

  • NIBBLER

    I’m in StinkyBiker’s camp. Suit/Tie + 11 miles one way + no shower = Sweaty Disgusting Mess.

    My compromise: I take the subway with a folding bike in the morning, but change and commute back home on the bike. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least I get to ride without worrying about being disgusting at work.

    If there was a gym that would offer a discounted “shower” membership around work, I would bike commute much more often.

  • JSD

    Gyms would make a tidy little profit if they charged a small monthly fee for those interested in only using the shower facilities. If you’re commuting by bike anywhere near lower Manhattan, there’s a gym on every other corner.

  • I think lots of American drivers don’t know how to handle bicycle riders.

    Lots don’t know how to handle pedestrians, either. I just saw a women knocked down on Broadway near Trinity Church. Fortunately she appeared unharmed, standing up, etc., which is amazing considering the sound it made (it happened behind my back).

  • Danny G

    Less spandex, more old school kicks.

  • When I mention using a bike to get to work, the response is, “I’d like to do that to, but I can’t shower,” followed by “It’s gotta be unsafe. Think about that cyclist who just died…”

    The normalcy of biking still depends a lot on the number of people who perceive it as safe and reliable. Cycle gear and culture might seem weird, but even if it seemed normal, if it doesn’t look like it’s something you want to do in spandex and a helmet either, it’s going to scare away a lot of people.

    If there isn’t dedicated infrastructure, the average person will feel compelled to compete with cars, be afraid of being overtaken, and generally not enjoy their commutes. Bicyclists do not have the luxury of auto bubbles or train freedom, so unless they feel free – and encouraged – to go at their own pace, it’s still going to be a fringe activity.

    Getting people to bike in the first place will encourage governments, but it just seems like there are many people who are simply afraid to try without a bike lane.

  • Sarah’s suggestions are all great but are marginally effective in establishing cycling as a “normal” mode. Here where I cycle in Portland, OR approximately 7% of transportation trips are made by cyclists. Not bad for U.S.cities but nothing compared to the 35-40% bicycle mode share of Dutch or Danish cities. To reach “normal” Danish or Dutch mode splits we must address the real problems- safety and land use and offer meaningful strategies to increase ridership. What are the safety strategies? First recognize that the greatest deterrent to cycling is the fear of riding in roadways. While the “strong and the fearless” most of us who wear lycra, are young and athletic will ride about anywhere, the majority of the “normal” riders- children, seniors and others are simply not going to ride in dangerous situations. These people which our transportation department describes as “willing but concerned” number at about 60% of our city’s population! We simply must do what we can attract these riders. How? By replicating Copenhagen where in the 1970’s it was auto choked but is now considered one the greatest cycling cities in the world. They constructed protected bikeways or what are unfortunately known as cycle tracks here in the U.S. As a result, their cycling trips have skyrocketed. Second we must recognize that for cycling to be a “normal” transportation mode, our cities must be designed so that a bicycle can be use for a majority of the 10 transportation trips made by a typical American household daily, not just commuting . To do this, we must redesign the land use patterns of cities as collection of balanced centers where cycling trips to the grocery store, school, church or the doctor are not 6 or seven miles away but no more than 1 mile. Until we we do this bandaid soultions such as showers at work are helpful but do not meaningfully move us toward “normalcy”.

  • DLB

    As easy as it is, bicycle commuting still isn’t perceived as normal- I’m over 50, cycle in skirt and plain shirt. I change just the top at work and wash down on hot days. Colleagues still think it’s “taking life in your own hands” to commute on the streets. I don’t think it is, especially if you relax and go easy- it’s commuting, not cycling for speed.
    I use an old hybrid bike- it’s heavy, I added basket (good for shopping at Union Square market)and I’m not afraid of locking it outside.
    Definitely more fun than the subway.

  • chris

    As a person who doesn’t even own a car and who cycles everywhere, I’m completely opposed to the construction of European-style cycle tracks here. Where they are built, they are generally followed by laws prohibiting cyclists from riding on the street, meaning that cyclists *lose* space that was previously available to them. When cyclists are corralled onto these things, they lose their ability to do vehicular left turns while being forced to do pedestrians left turns. Passing clearance is much tighter, which makes it difficult to pass slower cyclists who are riding two-abreast. You are more exposed to right hooks, which is a far more frequent accident than being struck from behind. Being confined to these would increase trip time, which is the exact opposite of what you want to do if you want to encourage more people to bike. Those who support these things are in favor of punishing people who actually do cycle RIGHT NOW for the benefit of people who don’t yet cycle, and who may or may not cycle should such cycle tracks be created.

    Also, there is evidence that the construction of such tracks does not *cause* high ridership, but are rather built after high-ridership already exists:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Segregated_cycle_facilities#Segregated_cycle_facilities_and_transportation_cycling

    Measures that restrict driving, making it more expensive and inconvenient, will make more people likely to bike. Such measures are not likely to get any politician elected here.

    That said, I do understand that most people would prefer not to cycle under high-traffic conditions. In Portland, where I live, such people generally ride on bike boulevards, which are traffic calmed thoroughfares — they share space with motorists, but there are very many of the latter. I’m okay with this form of bicycle infrastructure. Also, I also think that the suburbs could stand to create more connectivity between their side streets so that people can get around without using the main streets if they prefer not to.

  • Sylvia

    @ Chris

    I agree entirely that restricting driving would be the most effective route.

    However, just to clarify, you’re not actually against cycle tracks, but against laws prohibiting cyclists from riding on the street?

    Because I’m surprised at some of your reasonings against cycle tracks. Having commuted by bicycle extensively in both Germany and the US I find:

    1) Cycle tracks are faster because I don’t need to slow down and swerve when cars pull in front of me, into the bike lane or make right handed turns
    2) Passing slower cyclists is much more difficult on roads shared with cars because I have to move into the car stream of traffic after signalling and checking over my shoulder, etc.
    3) Cycle tracks are often completely separated from traffic (i.e. my old commute in Munich was along a river with paths under all of the bridges) so that for a large chunk of my commute, I didn’t have to stop *at all*. It’s hard to get faster than that.

    Anyone else who has had a lot of experience cycling on both cycle tracks in Europe as well as vehicular cycling in the US that would like to chime in? I wouldn’t want to lose current cyclists so I think having the choice is important… but to have a choice, we cyclists have to stop working against *more* options by speaking out against cycle tracks.

    I really believe this issue is the largest one in making bicycling “normal”.

  • It’s a problem of perception, and something I’ve been trying to address.

    1. Bike Commuting is not a sport and you don’t need to dress as if it were.
    http://ibikenyc.com/2009/03/29/bike-commuting-is-not-a-sport/

    2. Most people don’t need a separate wardrobe to bike to work, let alone showers at the office.
    http://ibikenyc.com/2009/04/17/bike-fashion-is-just-fashion-on-a-bike…/

    3. A short bike commute on relatively flat terrain will probably not make you sweat.
    http://ibikenyc.com/2009/05/02/bike-commuting-no-sweat/

    4. Biking in a city like New York is actually safer than in more car dependent cities. Its not true that biking here is only for the young and reckless.
    http://ibikenyc.com/2009/04/06/believe-it-or-not/

    5. Finally, people need to realize that anyone can bike in New York. I took my 70 year old grandmother for a 23 mile bike ride when she came to visit. She loved it. Watch the video…
    http://ibikenyc.com/2009/05/14/i-bike-ny-family-edition/

  • gecko

    In many instances, the time taken to get to and or wait for buses and trains is as long or longer than going to the final destination than by bicycle and even walking; especially, during off-peak hours and at low-use locations.

    Perhaps a much more suitable name for conventional mass transit would be big vehicle rapid transit (BVRT) or expensive big vehicle rapid transit (EBVRT) and for bicycle travel and public bicycle systems would be bicycle rapid transit or BRT.

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