Which comes first, the bike commuter or the infrastructure? Do riders emerge because the route to work is safer, or does the route become safer because Bike to Work commuters demand it? The answer, as you’d expect, is “it depends.” It depends on the region of the country, workplace, locker-room facilities, tax or commuter incentives, distance to work, and whole host of other variables, unique to each individual rider.
It also depends on what country you’re in. Twenty years ago, the United Kingdom embarked on a nation plan to reduce CO2 emissions, reduce or eliminate vehicles at city centers, and increase bicycle ridership. The UK model was series of laws that heavily taxed vehicle usage, provided subsidies for bicycle ridership, and improved infrastructure to change the commuting behaviors of Britons. The United States, consistent with its decentralized nature, has used federal grants to support local initiatives to improve or construct bicycle and public transit infrastructure.
Mix in a COVID inspired #bikeboom and you inevitably come to the question: which model is more effective in creating enduring bicycle-riding habits? To answer that question, we’ll compare national bicycle programs from the United Kingdom and the United States and try and determine which model might be more effective in sustaining a bicycle boom in our urban areas.
Two Decades of Bike to Work Promotion
Britain’s Cycle to Work program is a tax exemption initiative introduced in the Finance Act of 1999 to promote healthier journeys to work and to reduce environmental pollution. It allows employers to loan cycles and cycling equipment to employees as a tax-free benefit. The exemption was one of a series of measures introduced under the Government’s Green Transport Plan.
To get the tax break, would-be bicycle commuters lease a bike through an authorized retailer. In addition to the bicycle, employees can “rent” cycling accessories, tools, spares, and clothing for a discounted price. Upon receiving the bike and accessories, the employee has full control over the equipment and can use the bicycle beyond cycling to work, to include vacation and leisure riding. The tax exemption defines a “cycle” as ‘a bicycle, a tricycle, or a cycle having four or more wheels, not being in any case a motor vehicle’. An electrically assisted pedal cycle can be included under the scheme while a motor-powered vehicle like a moped or scooter would not qualify.
Cycle to Work is a ‘salary sacrifice’ employee benefit, meaning the cost of the bicycle and accessories are taken off gross salary in 12, 18, or 24 month installments, saving both the employer and employee money in payroll tax. The government changed the law a couple years ago and removed the £1,000 limit (~$1200), allowing a rider to spend any amount provided that it was approved from their employer. Since the program is a lease of equipment, there is a buy-back option unique to each retailer at the conclusion of four to six years.
To recap, UK employers pay for the Cycle to Work package on behalf of employees, who then repay their employers by accepting a reduced salary in exchange for the benefit of the package. Since salary is reduced, both employer and employee do not pay payroll tax on the deducted amount. As Britain see it, it’s a WIN-WIN-WIN scenario: The Employer reduces their tax burden and has healthier and happier employees; Employees receive a heavily discounted bicycle and accessories NOW (up to 47% discount based on tax bracket) and improve their mental and physical health; the Government is able to reduce pollution and congestion, as well as reduce their national medical burden due to healthier citizens.
In June 2020, the British government accelerated on their bike-friendly, reduced CO2 emissions policy in response to the COVID pandemic. The Department of Transport announced plans to issue 500,000 £50 repair vouchers to get neglected bikes back on the road along with additional policies designed to encourage those who drive to park outside towns and city centers. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the program would help in “speeding up the cycling revolution, helping individuals become fitter and healthier, and reducing air pollution, which remains a hidden killer. “Clean air should be as big a priority for us in the 21st century as clean water was to the Victorians in the 19th.”
To date, over 1 million employees have participated in the UK’s Cycle to Work program. 64% of participants were either non-cyclists, novice cyclists, or occasional cyclists before joining the program. Similarly, those joining the program commute to work by bike on a regular basis. Two thirds of participants use their bike to cycle to work on at least three or more days.
86% of employees participating in the scheme believe that cycling to work has led to health benefits. Of those who had noticed health benefits, 89% believed that it had improved general fitness; 52% believed that it had contributed to weight loss; and 46% believed that it had contributed to them being less stressed. Employers also recognize the contribution that the scheme makes to employee wellbeing with 77% of employers claiming that the scheme has had a positive impact on their organization in relation to employee health.
Lastly, the cycle to work program has made bicycle commuting affordable to lower income employees, since the cost of the bike and equipment is paid by the employer upfront. Research has shown that 71% of participants are taxpayers in the lowest tax brackets. Over half of respondents joined the scheme because they could spread the cost over a 12/24 month period (54%), or because they were attracted by the savings that it offered (up to 47%).
Want to Bike to Work But No Place for Your Professional Attire?
Is your Bike to Work day confined to Casual Fridays? Do you have two wardrobes—the Bike to Work wardrobe at the office and the rest at home? Can’t stomach the idea of strapping panniers—panniers!—to your bike?
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Local Initiatives, Federal Grants: The United States Model
In the United States, no comparable legislative equivalent exists to the UK’s Cycle to Work program. Consistent with its legislative nature, American policy has focused on building local bike infrastructure rather than incentivizing individual change. The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) is the largest federal funding source to help communities build bike infrastructure, including on- and off-road bicycle facilities. Recreational trail projects, safe routes to schools, and protected bike lanes are included. Funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program will grow to $850 million in fiscal year 2020. Bicycle and alternative transportation advocates such as PeopleforBikes, League of American Bicyclists, the Association of Commuter Transportation, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy are but a few organizations advocating for infrastructure and access at the national level.
Unlike the UK’s Cycle to Work scheme, U.S. lawmakers have yet to define or implement a national policy regarding alternative transportation methods and biking to work. The result is a hodge-podge of programs and initiatives across several federal agencies. The current session of Congress is considering the following programs:
- The INVEST in America Act. The bill proposes $494 billion over five years, with greater investments in biking, walking, Safe Routes to School, and transit than the status quo, plus it includes new climate programs. This bill was passed in July by the House Appropriations Committee as part of the FY 2021 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill.
- Personal Health Investment Today [PHIT] Act (H.R.1267; S.482). If passed, the PHIT Act will allow Americans to use Health Savings Accounts to pay for fitness equipment, exercise videos, youth sports leagues participation fees, and health club memberships up to $1,000 per year to cover exercise related expenses and families to use up to $2,000 per year. Consumers will be able to save 20 to 30 percent on fitness expenses through the use of pre-tax accounts.
- Mobility Options, Resiliency, and Efficiency (MORE) Through TDM. This bill defines Transportation Demand Management (TDM) in U.S. statute, incorporates TDM into transportation planning, and proposes a $100 million grant to states and the District of Columbia.
- The Bicycle Commuter Act of 2019 is a bill that encourages bicycle and electric bike commuting that would restore tax incentives for some riders, allowing them to receive employer-paid transportation benefits up to $53 per month tax-free. The Bicycle Commuter Act reinstates the bicycle commuting tax benefit that was suspended with the passage of Public Law 115-97 (also known as the “Trump Tax Cut and Jobs Act”).
“The bicycle is the most efficient form of urban transportation ever devised. Cycling reduces carbon emissions, provides enormous physical and mental health benefits, and is one of the most cost-effective modes of transportation available.” — Representative Earl Blumenauer (Oregon)
We Americans love to build, and we love to build roads. The U.S. boasts 4 million miles of roads, but fewer than 300 miles of protected bike lanes. Not only is there is a huge disparity in terms of transportation spending on vehicular infrastructure opposed to bike infrastructure, the U.S. tax code still overwhelmingly promotes vehicular usage. Qualified transportation benefits may total $256 per month for the cost of automobile commuting and $256 per month for the cost of car parking, while the smaller reimbursement of $20 a month for bicycle commuters was ended in 2017.
But while our car-friendly country may have plenty of ground to make up, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. Since 2000, there has been an increase of 43% of the number of Bike to Work Commuters to approximately 850,000 through 2018. In cities prioritizing cycle-friendly streets and funding better infrastructure, biking to work is increasing much faster. Policies do make a difference: In 43 of the 70 largest cities across the country, cycling rates are rising, and a number of ambitious plans show cities embracing the health, environmental, and social benefits of cycling.
The GrüneStrasse Take
The coronavirus has kind of thrown out all previous scholarship and study on incentivizing bikers. As urban centers became vehicle-free and public transit no longer a safe health option, millions took to the bicycle to move around the city. Both the UK and USA models demonstrated resiliency and effectiveness during COVID. The UK had built up a cadre of over 1 million bikers who were able to continue to work or meet their obligations. The Cycle to Work infrastructure was proven, effective, and capable of meeting the demand for new cyclists when the pandemic arrived. In the United States, with it’s focus on infrastructure, local governments were able to quickly adopt vehicle-free areas and promote Safe Streets, pop-up bicycle lanes, and other infrastructure modifications that encouraged additional bikers to participate.
The British model is that individual behavior needs to change first, followed by infrastructure. The American model is the opposite—build it and they will come. GrüneStrasse believes that a simultaneous, coordinated, and concurrent response is required to continue to fuel and grow the Bike to Work movement. Taking the best of the British and American models we recommend the following strategies:
- Construct separated bike lanes and connect existing bike networks. Safety is a paramount concern for all cyclists. Separating vehicle and foot traffic from cyclists increases safety for all groups and should be a priority. The #1 reason why people do not bike to work is fear of sharing the road with a vehicle. When the vehicle is removed and replaced with other bikers, the primary impediment for biking disappears.
- Incentivize cycling. We know cycling is hugely beneficial to health and well-being over the long term, yet people are rarely persuaded to start or continue a behavior because of possible future rewards. Incentives, however, can help keep new cyclists on the road. Congress should offer tax deductions for bicycles, bike-related purchases, and services. Insurance companies should reduce premiums for bikers, as they do for non-smokers. Companies should make a bike purchase part of employee benefits, similar to the Cycle-to-Work and BiketoWork schemes popular in the U.K. and Ireland, respectively.
- De-incentivize driving. Make permanent Safe Streets, Slow Streets, and street closures around the country that promote walking, biking, and social distancing while limiting vehicle usage. Increase taxes and penalties for driving and parking in urban centers. And eliminate tax advantages that favor automobile ownership and promote driving.
Ultimately, these strategies will normalize biking and further encourage this new generation of cyclists to stick with it. Enacting these strategies can transform cycling from an alternative mode of transportation to the safest, fastest and most cost-effective mode of transportation, well beyond the duration of COVID-19.
Shellback6 is GrüneStrasse’s regular blog contribution to the Bike to Work and Alternative Transportation Movement. Comments, suggestions, and dissenting points of view welcome!