MobilityCyclingRush to Hush Hour: How to Get People Cycling to Work

Rush to Hush Hour: How to Get People Cycling to Work

Jo Helme
Jo Helme
I studied (and cycled) at the Universities of Cambridge, Nottingham and Vienna. My day involves squeezing information out of cycling advocates, experts and policymakers, and then writing all the juicy bits into articles. When the climate crisis gives you lemons, ride bicycles.

From helmet hair to soaked suits, cycling to work isn’t always appealing. Here’s why paying commuters to cycle to work is misguided and how employers, employees and policymakers can all play their part.

Making Cents to Cycle 

Paying people to cycle to work is a popular strategy with politicians in achieving greener commutes and healthier workers. Since money makes the world go round, why not use it to make bike wheels go round, too? 

Per kilometre, an employee in the Netherlands can earn 19 cents for cycling their daily commute, 23 cent in Belgium, 25 cent in France and a lofty 30 cent in Germany. 

Other financial incentives are also being deployed to tempt our inner cyclist. Tax reimbursements of 300€ for bike purchases exist in Luxembourg, discounted bicycles bought through employers are being offered in the UK, and employees in the US can claim $20 a month from their taxable income for bike maintenance and (taxable) cash in lieu of not using workplace carparks. 

So, is this the quick fix solution to rush hour pollution? Can you really buy motorists off? Policy reviews of these schemes present a cycling breakthrough; however, a closer look suggests otherwise. 

Money Doesn’t Motivate Motorists

France’s cycling kilometric scheme, l’indemnité kilométrique vélo (IKV), began in 2016 after a year-long pilot scheme and is open to both private and public employees on a voluntary basis. The 25 cent per kilometre is deducted from the company’s social security contributions and limited to 200€ a year per employee. Distances are calculated on the commuter’s most direct route and include biking to public transport stations. A 200€ subsidy on electric bikes and a tax reduction on bicycles purchased by employers for their employees further sweeten the scheme.

The report produced by L’Observatorie de IKV, the official body monitoring the scheme, found a 69% increasein the number of cyclists within the companies involved and a 15% reduction in sick leave claims. It found that 9% of employees cycled to work, compared to France’s average of 3%. 

However, the findings show that the majority of those choosing to cycle had previously used public transport or car-pooling. Hence, the scheme did not result in a modal shift from car use to cycling. The financial incentive was not enough to persuade the core target of individual car users. 

The UK’s ‘Cycle to Work’ scheme can be charged with the same failing. While the Institute of Employment Studies’ report estimated that the tax reduction on bike purchases (up to 32 – 42%) increased cycling among 66% of respondents and saved the country 72 million pounds due to increased fitness and lower sick days, it also found that there was no overall rise in the proportion of the population cycling to work. This means that the vast majority of those utilising the scheme already commuted by bike, and simply extended the amount of time spent cycling. 

Appealing to motorists through financial incentives is therefore not enough to shift commuters from the steering wheel to handlebars. This is because the entire idea of financial gain is misplaced. 

The high cost of fuel, insurance and car maintenance already provides the financial incentive for cycling. Tossing in an extra 25 cent per km does not make much difference. If commuters were driven by costs, they would not be driving. It’s the comfort, ease, speed and social custom that pull the driver in.

Can you really buy motorists off? Image credit: Unsplash / Dewang Gupta

Milan has toyed with implementing a pay- to- bike scheme due to the city’s high level of pollution. Yet, as Copenhagenize’s former chief executive Mikael Colville-Andersen points out, dense polluted air is hardly an alluring sales prospect for future cyclists. This further goes to show that low bait financial incentives cannot fix a city’s mobility problems. 

So, if financial rewards do not get people cycling to work, then what does? 

Creating Corporate Cyclists

As an employer, begin with de-subsidising workplace carparking. GlaxoSmithKline reckon a single carparking spot in West London costs £2,000 a year to maintain, so replacing those with multiple bike places is a significant cost cutter. Reshape your businesses to accommodate cyclists – showers, changing rooms, lockers, bike repair kits and bike sheds have all be shown to improve the uptake of cycling. 

As an employee, develop a cycling culture at work. This requires a core group of cyclists who rub off on their colleagues. Promoting the ‘Bike to Work Week’ (a global event in May) is an easy place to start – you can even make it more enticing by offering a breakfast post cycle, as done by workplaces in Denver and San Francisco each year. A workplace cycle challenge, such as the Netherland’s ‘Cycle the Difference’ scheme where employees collect sponsorship for good causes by cycling, is another option – a bit of guilt tripping in the office never hurt! 

As a policymaker, get serious about building cycling infrastructure. Total investment in road infrastructure among the EU28 in 2016 was €69 billion, making 20 cent per km look even more like pitiful loose change. Cycle lanes to major working hubs and dedicated spaces for bikes on public transport are necessary for commuters to genuinely consider a daily cycle. 

How To In a Nutshell.. 

Ultimately, motorists cannot be bought – it’s about shifting the comforts of the car to the bike. Only through the collective efforts of employers, employees and policymakers will greener commutes be brought about.  

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