Thursday, May 26, 2016

Getting folks to bike commute doesn't have to be so hard

bike bridge
This is the post where I tell you about new consulting services I'm offering to promote bike commuting. If you wanna skip to the goods, check out my new site.

It's time to ask the hard questions of ourselves, our employers, and our colleagues. Why are bike commuting rates so low? I think it comes down to people being so entrenched in the status quo that they cannot see another way. Just under half of employees live within 10 miles of their office and yet bike commuting rates are dismal. Even in Minneapolis, where we have the second most bike commuters of any major city, only 4.6% of folks commute by bike. There's a huge opportunity to promote health by changing the way people get to and from work.

 Most major employers have a wellness division. Usually housed under human resources, this is the department that will plan walking challenges, send out flyers on healthy behavior, organize health fairs and screenings, and give you resources for health promotion courses. In my experience as an employee, these challenges are merely lip service to the idea of wellness. Some people get into them, yes. Some employees will buy hand weights and new shoes, taking the lunch hour to walk around the parking lot. Some employees will take more walks at home with their friends and families, to make sure they're getting their steps in for the day. Some employees will park farther from the store entrance or decide to walk to a coworker's desk instead of emailing as a way to walk a bit more. All of these are great outcomes. These challenges can be fun, but it's very unlikely that most of them are impacting health beyond the duration of the challenge.

I worked at a pharmacy after I finished my undergraduate degree. It was my first big-kid job and I still remember it fondly. At the time, I'd never been regularly physically active. I was 22 and slender; I'd always associated working out with losing weight. While I worked at the pharmacy, the wellness division coordinated walking challenges. I participated, for the cheap plastic rewards, but I still remember taking pride in telling my coworkers who exercised that I "didn't need to." Eventually hearing them talk about time at the gym wore me down and I joined one myself. I exercised religiously until I thought to bike commute. That was the beginning of the end of my gym life. And thank god for it, because spending hours upon hours, day after day, staring out the same gym window while swinging my arms on the same elliptical remains my idea of hell.

Bike commuting made sense for me then and makes sense for me now. It's a way to be physically active without having to try too hard to be physically active. Commuting by bike is associated with better mental health and reduces cardiovascular risk. Bike commuters live an average of two years longer, breathe in less pollution, take fewer sick days, and are just plain happier with their commutes. Folks who commute by car are more likely to gain weight over time than those who commute by bike, even when they are physically active in their free time. Promoting active commuting is cost effective. Getting people to incorporate physical activity into their everyday routines is much cheaper than enrolling folks in targeted physical activity classes.

So then, how do we do it? How do we encourage people to take the leap and figure out the bike commuting thing? Well, it's clear that bike commuting isn't an option for everyone. Folks who live long distances away from work may struggle to bike commute, although e-bikes may extend commute range. Parents may find it hard to coordinate daycare drop-off and pick-up on a bicycle, although it's very doable if you have the right set-up. And employees with disabilities or chronic disease may not be able to bike commute due to physical limitations. All of those things are okay, those are not the people I'm talking about.

I'm talking about people like my old coworker B. He lives nine miles from work and his route is almost a straight-shot to the office along the greenway. He didn't have a bike and hadn't biked in ages. He said that seeing my bike parked in the office every day made him realize that he had no reason for driving every day. He bought a bike and started riding it to work, and over the ensuing months lost around thirty pounds. While B is a great guy, I don't think he's particularly special in his relationship to commuting. He drove to work because driving to work is how he'd always conceived of commuting. Eventually, he saw that biking to work was a feasible option, a better option.

There are ways to promote bike commuting that work. Doing this in the work environment makes perfect sense, because everyone has to get to work. Instead of giving out gift cards when employees see the dentist (or hell, in addition to gift cards for employees seeing the dentist), why not use strategies that have been shown to increase bike commuting rates? Achieving lasting health means building healthy habits and bike commuting is a powerful habit. We can improve bike commuting rates through the creation of bike-to-work events, leading bike trains so people don't have to first-time commute on their own, writing targeted guides and information about how to bike commute, conducting surveys to understand barriers, and changing company policies and amenities to be more friendly to bike commuters. I'm now offering all of these as consulting services. Promoting bike commuting should be a public health priority. It has the potential to be very powerful. If your company is interested, drop me a line.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The corporate bike forum: Minnesota’s not-so-secret society of commuter advocates

This is a guest post by Marc Berg. Keep up with all posts by following along on Facebook.bikes

Want to Join Corporate Minnesota’s Not-So-Secret Society of Commuter Advocates? We’re meeting at Great River Energy on April 19th.

My first post on Minneapolize was about the vision for a downtown bike center, where people would be encouraged to commute by bike because they have everything they need in terms of end-of-trip facilities. That idea continues to gain traction, as one facet of what I like to jokingly call “our diabolical plot to normalize transportation cycling.”

Those of us who regularly commute to our jobs by bike get a little thrill out of being seen as the workplace iconoclasts – at least when it comes to matters of transportation. We swagger in each morning with our helmets in hand and messenger bags over our shoulders, hoping this quiet but public display about our lifestyle choice might eventually convince at least some of our coworkers to leave their cars at home and join us for the ride in. It’s a personal form of grassroots bike advocacy that allows us to feel that we’re making an individual contribution to a larger cause of bettering the world through more biking.

 Thankfully, the Twin Cities has a growing network of like-minded folks who hold semi-annual conferences under a mainstream-sounding name – the Corporate Bike Forum – which, since 2013, have been hosted by local corporate heavyweights such as Best Buy, Wells Fargo, Ameriprise, and Target Corp. Conceived in 2013 by David Gepner, chair of the Hennepin County Bicycle Advisory Committee, the forums seek to “facilitate networking, share ideas, and help create strategies around getting your co-workers to bike to work.”

 The next forum is scheduled for April 19th at 2:00 p.m., and will be hosted by Great River Energy in Maple Grove (more info below). Previous forums have included discussion of some of the more well-known local workplace initiatives, such as (1) the expansion of the Dero ZAP program, (2) the creation of Target’s employee bike center, and (3) the health insurance cost savings QBP realized by offering cash incentives to its employees who bike.

 The last forum, held at Target in October 2015, featured a panel discussion on the challenges facing women as bike commuters, led by Brittany Peterson of Target, Jo Olson of Bike.MN, and Pamela Moore of Transit for Livable Communities (TLC). Brittany, Jo, and Pam each shared personal stories of how they became bike commuters, the positives and negatives they encountered in creating a commuter lifestyle, and things they felt would help more women start to see bike commuting as a realistic and attractive option. Forum participants were encouraged to offer their own perspectives on the issue of women-as-bike-commuters, and did so – enthusiastically – about safety concerns; the absence of decent trip-end facilities (i.e., showers and lockers) at many workplaces; the need to provide new female commuters with better information about routes, equipment, and attire; the intimidating quality of some of the male-dominated “bike snob” commuter groups; and a pronounced fear of “looking dumb” as a female bike commuter and not meeting cultural expectations about workplace attire and appearance. Ideas suggested to alleviate some of these problems included holding group ride-ins with a “no-drop” rule, employer-sponsored bike skills classes, and employee-commuter groups making extra effort to offer an environment more welcoming to women.

As a middle-aged male, I realize I’ll probably never fully grasp the subtle cultural and environmental factors that discourage women from biking. Still, we can all agree that too many obstacles remain, and that real action is needed. Implicit in every question, comment, and story I heard from the group that day was a wish that the proverbial “powers that be” – the unseen individuals who make the big decisions in our lives – would simply listen for a moment, and understand that these ideas make sense, and can benefit so many people in so many ways, that tangible action would follow in the foreseeable future. Everything that Brittany, Jo, and Pamela said about the things employers could do to make bike commuting a more appealing choice for women would be easy and inexpensive to implement. Do we just need to get the right people in the room with us? What’s the best way to convince business leaders that they should join our cause, and run with it? These are all crucial questions and ideas that need to be addressed on an employer-by-employer basis. The Corporate Bike Forum, however, can serve as an effective sounding board to brainstorm these ideas first. 

Presentations scheduled for the April 19th event at Great River Energy will include “Creating a Workplace Bike Culture: the U of MN Experience” by Steve Sanders; “Duluth, a BFB Hotspot: Best Practices from the North Shore” panel discussion hosted by Shawna MullenEardley, and a tour of Great River’s employee bike facility let by Greg Archer. Registration is available on the Bike.MN website. If you can’t make it this time, but want to be kept in the loop, the group recently opened a Facebook page as a platform for online information exchanges, including announcements about future forums.

 Interested in joining the discussion? Do you have some excellent ideas to encourage bike commuting? Or find a support network of folks who could help you to spread these bike-radical ideas into your workplace, and further our evil plan to subvert the car culture? Register for the April 19th event, join the Facebook group, and help us crank forward to that ultimate victory. Maybe the Corporate Bike Forum will grow so large that we won’t be seen as “different” any more.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Minneapolis doesn't have enough bike lanes

37e28531 Yesterday's Star Tribune article by Steve Brandt asked: Does Mpls., big-city leader in bike network density, have enough bike lanes? In the article, Brandt states that we have the densest bike network, well ahead of Boston, our nearest rival. And yet, this is a very narrow and short-sighted question to ask. American cities are terrible at bike infrastructure. In Minneapolis, we're doing a decent job. But we're only doing well when compared to how poorly most other American cities are doing. It's like wondering whether a C student is doing too well when everyone else in the class is getting a D. It just doesn't make sense. We don't need to be confined to a box of mediocrity.

When Copenhagenize ranked the twenty most bike friendly cities in the world in 2015, Minneapolis made the list at number 18. It felt like a symbolic nod, an acknowledgement that some American cities are trying, rather than a legitimate inclusion of a world-class bicycling network. They stated: "Minnesota’s largest metropolis has the lowest baseline score of all the cities in the Top 20, but it makes up for that with bonus points in a number of categories." I'm glad we made the list, but Minneapolis has nothing close to the amazing infrastructure you can find in places like Barcelona and Amsterdam. There, it's not a struggle to find protected bike lanes. Barcelona has a comprehensive network that makes it so nobody bikes in the street. They don't have to. Everywhere you need to get by bike can be accessed within just a few blocks of a protected bikeway. Getting around is easy, even for tourists who don't speak Spanish.

Many folks in the Star Tribune comments stated that less than 1% of folks ride bikes and so we shouldn't spend money on infrastructure that very few people are going to use. Well, that's just not true. In Minneapolis, about 4% of folks bike to work regularly, but that doesn't capture people who bike commute only occasionally. A comprehensive report from People for Bikes found that 34% of Americans rode a bike in the previous year. The report found that many people believe biking is a good way to get around and would like to bike more, but are afraid of being hit by cars. They found that 46% of people said they would be more likely to ride a bike if bikes and motor vehicles were physically separated. Minneapolis has a long way to go. We're just barely starting to implement our protected bikeway plan. Many, many people do not feel comfortable biking in traffic. Until our bike network is comfortable and easily navigable for all people, ages 8 to 80, we won't have enough bike lanes.

Asking whether Minneapolis has enough bike lanes shifts the conversation in the wrong direction. The question itself is inflammatory, as you can see by the over 350 comments that have been left on the article so far. People are pulling out all the old tired arguments against biking in response, as they do with almost every Star Tribune article that references biking. I bet most of them didn't even read the article. If the Star Tribune wants to adequately cover biking in a way that doesn't result in unnecessary divisiveness, they shouldn't ask incendiary questions in their headlines. The City Pages, owned by the Star Tribune, has been doing an equally poor job covering cycling topics. 

So maybe now is the right time to say that I want this blog to be a place to write about and discuss cycling in a supportive and balanced way. In the next couple weeks, I'll begin posting articles from guest bloggers. I'm happy to hear your perspective. Want to let me interview you, write a post, or just share some ideas you'd like me to explore? Send them to hello@bikinginmpls.com. I'm looking forward to this new chapter.
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