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D.C. area employers offer incentives to bike commuters

By Dimetrius Simon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; B06

Bob Patten's morning routine is different from most commuters'. With a helmet, special shoes and a yellow reflective vest, he bypasses the frustrations of stop-and-go traffic and Metro delays as he bikes the two miles from his home in Takoma Park to his job in Hyattsville.

He usually travels up Riggs Road, zigzags through a green meadow and pops out on a path near Home Depot before heading up East-West Highway to Toole Design Group.

"I spend a lot of time in the morning thinking of road and trail improvements that would make my commute route more safe and pleasant," Patten said.

But the difficulties don't stop him. And companies such as Toole are using incentive programs to encourage employees to bike to work. Cycling enthusiasts hope the idea gets a boost as thousands of people take two-wheelers to the office Friday on Bike to Work Day, a national event that encourages bicycle safety and awareness.

Organizer Doug Franklin said 35 relief stations will be scattered across the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia to help the expected 8,500 riders complete their trips.

"This event is truly a regional effort," Franklin said. "I think it's great because it gives bicyclists empowerment and encourages a lot of new people to bike that never have done so before."

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 1 percent of residents in the area cycle to work, and communities are encouraging more people to ride.

In 2008, the federal government began a financial-incentive program administered through the Internal Revenue Service to encourage biking to work. Companies can receive a tax benefit for providing employees with a subsidy of as much as $20 a month to buy, repair or store bicycles.

In the District, the 2008 launch of the city's first bike-share program, SmartBike, also helped. The city plans to expand the program from 10 bike stations to 100 by December. Three percent of D.C. residents bike to work, said Jim Sebastian, who manages the city's bicycle program and bikes to work three times a week.

"We are doing our own marketing to reduce the amount of people who drive, provide facilities and encourage people to bike or walk," Sebastian said.

The District, which has 45 miles of bike lanes, plans to expand the network to 80 miles across the city. Officials expect to open bike lanes along the center of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol in the next few weeks.

In Alexandria, the City Council has approved $7 million over the next 10 years for pedestrian and bicycle safety, including bike lanes, markings and trails.

Montgomery County is also promoting bicycling in such places as White Flint, Takoma Park and Bethesda by encouraging more employers and developers to provide bike amenities, said Rollin Stanley, the county planning director.

"In order to attract active people and a young generation, we need to provide things they are attracted to," Stanley said. "Mobility is key."

Toole Design Group, which has about 25 employees, started a bike incentive program four years ago. Today, 20 percent of the staff members cycle to work regularly, including Patten, a senior transportation planner who works on bike plans and trail designs.

Employees at Toole who bike to work receive up to $200 in gift cards every six months. Patten prefers REI gift cards, which he can use to buy more bike equipment. Amazon and iTunes gift cards are also popular among employees, said Jennifer Toole, president of the company.

"We don't reimburse for parking expenses, so we want our employees to be healthy and a better workforce," she said.

At the American Society of Landscape Architects in Northwest Washington, the 43 employees are offered the IRS-backed reimbursement, plus an extra $50 a year. In addition, the company provides showers and a courtyard with bike racks.

"We have an aim at the office to reduce our employees' carbon footprint and a wellness program to encourage employee health," said human resources manager Alice Klages.

More than 100 employees participate in the bike-to-work program at the law firm Perkins Coie LLP of the District, said media relations manager Julie Kaplan.

Perkins participates in the federal reimbursement program and provides bicycle pumps, tools and bicycle storage for its 1,800 employees across the country.

"We are a very bicycle-friendly business," Kaplan said. "We encourage employees to be mentally healthy and physical."

Patten, who once worked for Perkins, used to ride his motor scooter to work. Inspired by Toole's bike program, he coaches other staffers to bike to work.

"People have a fear of exploring on their own, so I assure people which areas are safe," he said.

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