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The Hidden Factor in Bike Commuting: Showers

The Hidden Factor in Bike Commuting: Showers
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It's no secret that American cities are trying all kinds of things to encourage bike commuting. Some are building bike lanes even if it means taking space away from cars. Some have authorized bike-share programs. Some are requiring workplaces to designate bicycle parking or, failing that, compelling them to allow bikes inside the building.

All of these efforts have resulted in varying degrees of success. But there's a hidden factor in some decisions to ride or not to ride to work — or, if not quite hidden, at least overlooked by most statistical analyses of bike commuting — and that's the presence of office showers and changing facilities. In an upcoming issue of Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech quantifies just how important these seemingly small amenities can be:

Trip-end facilities at work appear to be significant determinants of cycling to work. 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 1.78 times greater odds to cycle to work than those without trip-end facilities.

For his study, Buehler collected a random sample of residents in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Roughly 5,000 daily commuters —not  all of them bikers; again, this was a full representative sample — recorded their travel behavior for a single day back in 2007-2008. All told just under 2 percent of respondents rode a bike to work. (Quick caveat: the research predated the Capital Bikeshare program, so ridership rates are certainly lower than they would be today.)

The data led to some predictable associations. Bike commutes were most common for trips within 3 miles. The more cars you own, the less likely you are to bike to work. Share of bike commuters is greater in places with more bike lanes. It's also greater toward the urban core of the metro area.

Buehler then controlled for basic variables and focused on the relationship between commuting and four main employer factors: those with bike parking but without employee showers, those with both bike parking and changing facilities, those with free car parking, and those that offer transit subsidies. He found that people whose employers offered free car parking had 70 percent smaller odds of commuting by bike, which comes as no surprise, and also that there was no significant relationship between transit benefits and cycling to work.

But the key finding, given in the block quote above, was that D.C.-area residents were much more likely to bike to work if their employer offered both parking and showers than bike parking alone. That might not matter much if most employers offered a full package of commuter amenities, but according to Buehler's figures that's not the case: roughly 11 percent of all bike commuters in the study had both bike parking and showers, compared to about 38 percent that had bike parking alone.

Although Buehler doesn't elaborate on his results, the larger implications are quite clear: Bicycle commuting is a complex behavior that needs multiple layers of policy encouragement to thrive. Cities that aim to increase their share of cyclists have taken a good first step in creating the infrastructure that gets them from their home to their office. Those that wish to do more should consider measures that get bike riders from their office to their desk.

Top image: silver-john/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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