Thursday, August 22, 2013


It's raining today in Anchorage. It's been raining for the past month, it seems, after a summer of blue skies and perfect weather, it's now time to start getting real about things. Start thinking about winter. For some riders the headlights have already come out to illuminate the morning commute. The layers lie at the ready. Hats and gloves are worn. Rain gear tested. This type of weather, this time of year, is when we see who is hardcore into their bike commuting and who isn't. What drives someone to start his or her day in the pouring rain just so he or she can peddle a bike from home to office?

As dedicated bike commuter over at the MTBR commuter forums stated when asked what it takes to get someone to go car-lite: " I think most people will need a crisis to get them out of the car initially. Like no gas available due to some disaster, big price increases, loss of a car, or road/transit congestion that makes the alternatives to biking more undesirable. bad habits are ingrained and tough to break! (mtbxplorer)"

This concept played out with the colleague I mentioned yesterday. She's ridden a number of days this week because she had no other choice. Her car was in the shop and it was either take the bus or bike it. She rode her bike and now states that the commute "wasn't that bad."

And for a lot of people that is what it takes - a situation where the choice is removed. Unfortunately for most, when that occurs it is already too late.

Life changes. And when life changes, it can lead us to do things we didn't think of doing before. I started commuting by bike 100% just three years ago, so I am still fairly new to the whole thing. I had commuted off an on before that, but never regularly.

What prompted my conversion? A major life change. We decided to move from South Dakota to Alaska. And that move caused three things to happen that drove me towards bike commuting. First is the cost of living in Alaska. Things are expensive here. Fuel is expensive. Insurance is expensive. It's all expensive. In and of itself, that is not insurmountable. I am a well-educated, well-employed person. But here is where the second thing that drove me towards bike commuting - we sold our second car before we moved up here. We didn't see the point in trying to drive two cars up the ALCAN and weren't sure just how well a Volkswagen Beetle would do in Alaska anyway. Again, both of these could be overcome. I could have bought a car once we got up here - which was always in the back of our heads to do, I think. But this is where the third, and hardest hurdle to overcome came in - pay. When we decided to move up here I took a substantial pay cut. Substantial. In South Dakota I was working on a project for the State. A 70-million plus, Federally supported IT project. I was making more money per year than I ever thought I would -probably way overpaid, truth be told. And I was also teaching as an adjunct at the local U for another 20-ish K per year. Couple that with a sub-500 a month rent bill, utilities that were ridiculously cheap, and a weekly food bill for a family of five that was probably a quarter of what we pay now, and we quickly see that commuting by bike wasn't so much a choice as a need.

Here we were in Anchorage, paying 1200+ a month for rent, over 4 bucks a gallon for fuel, and eating ramen because that's what we could afford. There was literally no way that we could have afforded a second car, let alone the gas required for a daily, in city commute.

So I rode my bike. At first I rode most days. I wasn't trying to make a statement or anything. I was just too cheap/broke to be able to support a car commute lifestyle.

I remember every morning waking up and thinking of reasons why I should drive instead of bike: Too cold. Too wet. Too sore. Too early. Too late. The list of excuses was endless. But the strange thing that happened was about Christmas time of that first commute year, about 4 months in, I woke up one morning and didn't have the question bouncing around my head of how I was going to get to work. I was just going to ride in. And from there, it was just what I did. I rode bike to work. I didn't think about driving. I didn't use excuses such as "I need to go to client XYZ's office today. I better drive." Instead, I just rode. It went from being a conscious choice I made daily to being just what was.

But had I not made the decision to move my family to Alaska, knowing full-well about the hardships we'd face that first year, I don't think I would have made the switch to full time bike commuting.

At least not unless there was something else to encourage it.

So then how do we encourage it? There are a number of ways that we can do this.

Offer incentives for employees who use alternate commuting options. Here's the deal - bike commuting, walk commuting, skateboard commuting, XC ski commuting, run commuting - these all benefit both the employee and the employer. Employees who commute under their own power are, studies show, more productive overall, use health insurance less, and take fewer sick days per year. Win/win.

Some employers pay employees for not driving. There's an interesting story about that here. I like that idea. Pay people to not get in their cars. But rather than give them cash, how about give them the benefit in the form of credits for a local bike shop so that they can buy new bikes and gear? Or credits with the company to buy extra vacation days? Find a way to make sure that the incentive received goes towards encouraging the employee to continue the behavior. What better way to keep the bike commuting stoke going than with a new bike or new gear?

How else can we encourage people to put their fear of commuting by bike away? Organize monthly office rides. Use these rides as a low-risk way of showing new riders the basics of commuting, safe routes for the commute, and just how easy it can be to make the commute by bike. Wrap the office ride up with a fun single-track session or a road ride and then go for breakfast or lunch on the company dime. I think that the biggest fears that many new riders have are:

1) I can't find a route / the route is too dangerous

2) I won't make it to work on time

Having a ride like this can alleviate both of these fears. The ride and follow-up coffee/breakfast gathering can then serve as a forum for experienced commuters to share their tips and tricks with new riders and answer specific questions that folks have. The added benefit is the increased camaraderie, which can result in lower turn-over and higher productivity as employees build stronger teams and are less likely to horde information.

Another way to increase alternate commuting is to wrap it up with other fitness-oriented incentives. Many companies have programs that reward such things as logging a million steps in a year or earning fitness points which are then used to reduce health insurance premiums paid by the employee. By including activities such as bike commuting in these programs legitimizes it for a lot of people.

Here's the thing - any incentive needs to really just focus on getting folks over the initial hump, those vital first few weeks when they still ask themselves "How am I getting to work today?" After that, the incentives become ancillary.

What other incentives or promotions do you think would work?

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