Virtuous circles: two wheels are proving good for the workforce

Cyclists coming to the Time-Life Building, on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue, often face a battle along crowded, unpredictable streets.

Not surprisingly perhaps, there is little official promotion of cycling for employees of Time Inc, the building’s tenant, since the company’s lawyers are concerned about encouraging commuters to ride on such forbidding streets.

Teri Lukin, Time’s director of health services, says only a “handful” of its hundreds of employees cycle to work.

In London, meanwhile, Canonical, a software developer, employs so many cyclists that Chris Kenyon, its head of sales, says the most common questions from employees when the office relocated related to cycling.

North London cyclists wanted guidance on a safe route across the Thames to the new office in Southwark on the south bank. Mr Kenyon is now organising a coalition of employers with cycling employees to call for rapid implementation of new cycling infrastructure plans.

These contrasting stories illustrate how, despite a sharp growth in cycle commuting in recent years in both London and New York, employers’ enthusiasm for the practice differs sharply.

It also remains clear that both cities have considerable scope for further growth. Although cycle commuter numbers doubled in New York between 2007 and 2011, and in London doubled between 2001 and 2011, neither city is likely to topple Copenhagen from its position as the world’s leading cycling city. There, nearly 40 per cent of journeys to work and education are by bicycle. In London, according to the latest UK census, 3.9 per cent of trips are by bicycle, while in New York 1 per cent of residents regularly commute by bike.

Rosie Downes, campaigns manager for the London Cycling Campaign, says there is “huge potential” for more Londoners to start cycling to work. “Many won’t do so because they find our streets too dangerous to cycle,” she says. “Tackling barriers to cycling through redesigning our streets and providing ample and secure cycle parking makes good sense for businesses that want a healthier and more productive workforce.”

At the heart of whether employees are prepared to ride to work is the state of each city’s roads. Many big cities sought in the middle of the 20th century to shape themselves to the needs of the car. Motorways bulldozed through inner-city neighbourhoods while the displaced people often moved to distant, car-dependent, low-density suburbs.

While cities have made halting efforts since the 1970s oil price shocks to improve conditions for cyclists, most campaigners believe safety fears continue to discourage many would-be cyclists, leaving the field disproportionately to the fit and the fearless.

Ms Lukin explains how Time considered participating in an annual challenge organised by Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group, but decided against it.

“We didn’t want to have an official cycling team because it is midtown Manhattan and it’s tricky,” she says. “The legal team were concerned that, if it was a company initiative and there was an injury, it would be the company’s responsibility.”

Time does supply secure bike parking – as required under New York City law – but just a handful of employees use it.

Caroline Samponaro, Transportation Alternatives’ director of campaigns, says the state of streets is a particularly urgent problem. New York, which has about the same population as London and similar traffic levels, suffers twice London’s annual road deaths.

At Canonical, meanwhile, there is less worry about what would happen if employees started cycling and far more pressure from those who are. The owners have become vocal about the need for segregated cycle paths in central London after the London Chamber of Commerce, a business group, opposed them, saying they would harm business.

Mr Kenyon decided it was time to go on the record about how important the paths are to his business, and entered into discussion with other companies. A series of employers, including Deloitte, a professional services company, Knight Frank, an estate agents, and some of London’s biggest hospitals have backed his campaign, called CyclingWorks.

This reflects a changing sense of employers’ responsibilities. While Mr Kenyon says some have voiced legal concerns of the kind that Ms Lukin articulates, others feel under pressure to improve their environmental performance and encourage more environmentally friendly modes of transport.

On top of that, Mr Kenyon says the health benefits for cycle-commuting employees seem to outweigh the injury risks. Employees who cycle take far fewer days off sick, he says.

The crucial point is that employees who travel by bike should not face the risk they currently do on many big cities’ streets, Mr Kenyon says. More and more are seeking help from their employers to mitigate the dangers.

“We have to stand up for the rights of our staff to safe transport,” Mr Kenyon says. “The vast majority of this relates to what our employees are asking for.”


Cycling safety

Cycle Superhighways”, developed under London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, were intended to promote cycling for a low cost. But, after a series of deaths, many believe they have increased the risks as well as the number of riders.

London employers have started a campaign to call for segregated routes. Some are involved because their employees have been killed or badly injured biking on London’s roads, says Chris Kenyon, founder of the CyclingWorks campaign.

Many contend that only solid separation from motor traffic can provide proper protection.

But the process of introducing “Dutch-style” infrastructure, such as that proposed on some London routes, is controversial. Opponents are worried about the impact on speeds for non-bike traffic.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.