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Bicycling benefits businesses and the people who work there
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How can you tell if a business appreciates customers who arrive by bike? The presence of a bike rack is a good sign.

The location of the bike rack is also telling. Is it near the loading dock around back? In the shadowy forbidden zone on the side of the building? In a lonely corner at the far end of the parking lot?

If so, there’s reason to doubt the business’s commitment to its cycling customers. It suggests an unenthusiastic attempt to satisfy a directive from the home office: “Alright, we’ll install a bike rack if we have to, but we’re going to make sure it’s not in the way.”

This is the opposite of the approach most businesses take toward car parking. Nothing is allowed to get between customers’ cars and the front door including, sadly, bike racks.

When you see a bike rack near the front door, that’s a sign that the business gets it. And what the business gets is loyal customers. Emerging research suggests people who shop by bike visit stores more often and spend more in aggregate – because of their many visits – than those who arrive by car.

Savannah Bicycle Campaign Executive Director Frank McIntosh says he hasn’t driven to the grocery store in more than two years. “It’s sort of a sick game to see how much you can carry by bicycle, but it’s possible to shop efficiently.

It also encourages more ‘just enough, just in time’ shopping, which means we don’t waste near so much food.”

On the other side of the house, what about employees who ride to work? Corporations are discovering that encouraging employees to ride bikes to work delivers all sorts of benefits, from shoring up the bottom line to boosting morale to reducing sick days.

To encourage bicycle commuting, employers offer indoor bicycle storage rooms or allow people to bring bikes into their offices or workspaces. Still others provide commuting benefits that range from tax credits to financing bicycle purchases by employees to vouchers for taxis or other motorized transport in case of emergency.

Another important encouragement an employer can offer is access to a shower, especially in sticky Southern cities like Savannah. And Washington, D.C., where Virginia Tech researcher Ralph Buehler studied determinants to bicycle commuting. As reported by Eric Jaffe last month on The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” blog, “D.C.–area residents were much more likely to bike to work if their employer offered both parking and showers than bike parking alone.”

Those who think that offering these benefits to cyclists is a luxury or extravagance are missing a very important point. Every business that provides free automobile parking is subsidizing car commuting, which is more expensive (building and maintaining surface and structured automobile parking is startlingly expensive) and yields none of the benefits of programs that support bicycle commuting.

In fact, Buehler’s findings indicate free car parking may even suppress bicycle commuting as, “people whose employers offered free car parking had 70 percent smaller odds of commuting by bike...”

People who arrive at work by car aren’t just missing out on the health benefits of bicycle commuting, they are vulnerable to a growing list of health risks associated with automobile commuting and especially long distance commuting. Successful programs that improve employee fitness, nutrition and lifestyle choices may expend most of their positive results simply trying to undo the negative effects of car commuting.

Imagine how much more beneficial these programs could become if participants didn’t first have to overcome the consequences of car commuting before they started marking real improvements. Quality Bicycle Parts, a distributor in Minnesota, provided bike parking and showers, offered a $3 per day incentive to employees coming to work on their bikes, and saw its health care costs fall 5 percent while national costs were rising more than 20 percent. With one program they reduced expenditures and improved employee health at the same time.

Employers that espouse commitments to employee wellness can do more than promoting good habits like encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the elevator while they are on the clock.

How many Savannah area employers are ready to go further and implement proven practices that encourage people to enjoy a healthful way of getting to work in the first place?

John Bennett is vice chairman of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.