Want Your Employees to Stay Healthier? Invest in Showers and Bike Parking

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Paul is communications director for Mobility Lab. He specializes in storytelling and editing, as well as environmental and pop-culture issues related to transportation.
July 24, 2012

Bike shower and parking facilities

Employees in the Washington D.C. region are more likely to bicycle to work if they have access to showers and bike parking, according to a new article in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment. Seems logical to me. One of the best parts about bicycling, especially on these unbearably hot Washington D.C. summer days, is how refreshing it feels to shower off and start each workday fresh as I sit down at my desk in the Mobility Lab.

Ralph Buehler, an Urban Affairs and Planning Professor at Virginia Tech, authored the article. I wanted to know more, so I asked him these questions:

Ralph Buehler

What is different about this study from previous studies about bike commuting?

First, this study looks at about 5,000 daily commuters, including motorists, pedestrians, transit riders, and bicyclists. Many previous studies on showers and bike parking only included bike commuters and their preferences, omitting all other commuters.

Second, the study relies on information of actual commutes. Many previous studies asked people about their hypothetical willingness to commute by bike if employers were to provide bike parking and cyclist showers. In those studies, people only reported their preference, but never actually commuted by bike.

Third, this study also includes variables measuring if employers provide free car parking and commuter transit benefits.

Fourth, the study also includes a control variable measuring the supply of bike paths and lanes.

What did you find that surprised you most?

I was surprised by the magnitude of the effects and how clear and robust the results were. Here are some highlights:

  • Compared to individuals without any bicycle facilities at work, commuters with cyclist showers, clothes lockers, and bike parking at work are associated with a 4.86 greater likelihood to commute by bicycle.
  • Individuals with bike parking, but no showers and lockers at the workplace, are associated with a 1.78 times greater likelihood to cycle to work than those without trip-end facilities.
  • One additional mile of bikeways per 1000 inhabitants is related to an 11 percent greater likelihood of cycling to work.
  • Short work-trips of under 3 miles are associated with more bike commuting compared to longer trips.

How do employer incentives, like free parking benefits, come into play when people are considering whether or not to bike commute to work?

The study shows that workers with free car parking at work are 70 percent less likely to cycle to work than those without free car parking. It also shows that commuter transit benefits are not significantly related to bike commuting. This is in line with previous research on the relationship of transit and cycling. Some studies show that transit competes with bicycles for certain trips. Other studies show that bicycling and public transit complement each other, especially when cyclists experience bad weather, mechanical failure, or when they can take their bikes on vehicles.

Who were you studying, and do you think it’s relevant nationally or to other U.S. cities? Are there any cities that perform particularly well in supplying these amenities to their bicyclists?

The study was based on a sample of commuters in the Washington D.C. region. It is difficult to generalize to the national level, especially because the D.C. region has a higer share of commuting or work-related bike trips than the national average. Moreover, the Washington, DC region has very humid and hot summers, that may make showering before working even more appealing.

There is no good research on municipal bike parking and cyclist shower requirements. But more and more municipalities, including Arlington and D.C., are now requiring employers to build cyclist showers and bike parking in new large office buildings. Moreover, I think the study shows that both reducing free car parking at work and facilities for cyclists help increase bike commuting. In many U.S. municipalities, parking at work is still subsidized and free.

Your article states that “in large U.S. cities, bicycling accounts for 0.8 percent of commutes to work, compared to 10 to 37 percent in large bike-friendly cities in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany.” How much does having work showers and bike parking add to commuter cycling there and how close to those European percentages do you think U.S. cities can get by adding these features?

Most workplaces in those countries have some form of bike parking. Moreover, car parking supply in European cities is much more limited and more expensive than in the U.S. Cyclist showers exist, but are not that common. A big difference to the U.S. may also be cycling style. Europeans often ride slowly on cheap bicycles. In the U.S., bike commuting is more often considered as part of a workout – a including use of a sporty bicycle.

It is important to note that cyclist showers and bike parking at work are just a part of a larger strategy to make bike commuting more attractive. This strategy includes:

  • comprehensive networks of separate bike lanes and paths
  • increased cyclist safety
  • cyclist training
  • training for motorists
  • traffic calming, and
  • many other measures.

Together with John Pucher from Rutgers University, I am co-editor of the forthcoming book City Cycling (MIT Press) that describes this comprehensive approach with chapters from cycling experts from Europe, North America, and Australia. If American cities implement the entire gamut of these measures, cycling levels will increase. Cities such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis are leading the way in the U.S.

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