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Bike commuting really works!

John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

No one was particularly surprised when Jen Colestock was the first to appear at the intersection of Bay and Bull streets on the morning of June 19.

Just like last year, she was the winner of the annual Dump the Pump commuting challenge, having made the trip from 12 Oaks Shopping Center to City Hall on her bicycle in about 20 minutes.

What is surprising is that after six years of bikes dominating the competition, some folks still question the efficiency and legitimacy of bicycles as a transit mode.

Some assume she must have cheated by running stop signs (she didn’t) or suspect the other competitors purposely let her win (they didn’t) or doubt she was wearing professional attire (she was).

It is true that our local observance of National Dump the Pump Day, an event established by the American Public Transit Association to “encourage people to ride public transportation and save money,” doesn’t exactly replicate real world conditions.

For instance, while many of us race out the door to make it to work on time, we aren’t actually racing against other commuters. Colestock might have ridden at a slightly more leisurely pace had she not been trying to arrive before Chatham Area Transit Chief Development Officer Ramond Robinson, who was a passenger on a CAT bus then switched to a CAT Bike for the final part of his commute, or City of Savannah Public Information Office Director Bret Bell, who drove a car.

But she likely would have won anyway since she arrived with time to spare. Robinson finished second and Bell third.

Colestock’s victory, coupled with those of Frank McIntosh and Kristin Mulzer in previous years, cements the bicycle’s status as superior conveyance for commutes from many in-town neighborhoods into downtown Savannah.

An analysis of census data conducted last year by the League of American Bicyclists ranked Savannah No. 12 on its “Top 20 Bike Cities” in the South and No. 31 on its “Top Commute Share” list among cities with populations of 100,000-200,000.

A report released last month by the Census Bureau finds, “Nationwide, the number of people who traveled to work by bike increased roughly 60 percent over the last decade.”

People who commute by bike in Savannah do so for economic, health or other reasons, but across the country employers are offering additional incentives. Simply setting aside space for secure bike storage at work is often a good first step, but that’s only the beginning. Companies can provide access to showers (particularly useful this time of year), allow flexible work schedules, and guarantee a ride home in case of illness or emergency. If offering benefits to employees who bike to work seems unorthodox, it’s only because we largely ignore another nearly ubiquitous incentive offered by employers.

“Free parking is the most common fringe benefit offered to workers in the U.S., and 95 percent of American automobile commuters park free at work,” according to UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup. “Free parking thus helps explain why 91 percent of commuters drive to work and why 93 percent of their vehicles have only one occupant.”

Even in downtown Savannah, where parking is competitive, many employees enjoy subsidized parking, which Shoup describes as a “matching grant for commuting by car.”

Offering incentives to those who bike to work is an equitable means to provide them benefits commensurate with those given to workers who drive. Fairness aside, a growing inventory of research reveals companies have much to gain by encouraging bicycling in the form of happier, healthier and more productive employees.

While businesses can use a variety of methods to encourage workers to ride to work, even the largest employers cannot remove the most difficult barrier to bicycle commuting: Streets that are unfriendly and unsafe for people who ride bikes. An oft-cited study from the Oregon Department of Transportation identified four distinct attitudes toward cycling for transportation. Colestock would likely fall into the “enthused and confident” classification. The good news is 60 percent of people are “interested” in transportational bicycling. The bad news comes in the full name of this cohort: “interested, but concerned.” They are worried about being able to get where they need to go safely. For many people, this concern keeps them off their bicycles.

This presents an opportunity for the employers, employees and governments to work together in an effort to make streets safe and welcoming to all users, whether they drive, ride bikes, walk or take transit.