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Simplest Bike Commuting Infrastructure: The Shower

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Research, as ever, tells us what we already know. Eric Jaffe, of Atlantic Cities, cites new research in Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, by Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech. The shocking revelation? After you ride a bicycle, it’s nice to take a shower.

I don’t mean to sound snide. The research is good and sensible — Buehler sampled the commuting behavior of several thousand D.C. residents and found that if

Janet Leigh enjoys a shower. If only she had bicycled rather than driven her car! More benefits to bicycling? Image from

you have free parking and other driving amenities at your place of work you’re 70 percent less likely to commute by bike. And what would make you almost FIVE TIMES as likely to commute by bike? A place to park the bike, a locker — and a shower.

A shower. Of course a shower. We talk endlessly (and rightly) about bike lanes and sharrows and complete streets and the disastrous economics of free parking schemes, yet the study showed this simple amenity — one every business in the entire western world could provide for less than $5000 — massively improves your likelihood to ride to work and accrue all the other health and environmental and psychological and business and community benefits therefrom.

A shower.

I can speak from experience. I lived in Philadelphia for a decade, and I rode my bike to my job at the Daily News, nine miles each way. Thing was, no showers. Fortunately for me, it was almost all downhill on the way in, so in the cool morning I could wear work pants and a t-shirt and mostly coast to work, followed by what we used to call a whore’s bath (language? is that offensive? I have an even more offensive term that my Aunt Carol taught me; email and I’ll tell you) in the big filthy bathroom the press crew used. It had one of those broad trough sprinkler sinks, where you step on a foot rail and an arc of sprinkler jets turns on. Using that, you could easily clean your nastiest areas, wash your face, rinse your hair, and use either a cheap beach towel or your dirty t-shirt to sop up. A few minutes of air drying, some personal care products, and you were ready for a day’s work.

The way home was nine miles all uphill, so it was bike shorts and the same old dirty t-shirt. I was a disgusting pig when I arrived, but that was no problem, given that we actually had two showers in our apartment.

So, easy fix, right? You just put a shower in every business and bike commuting goes up by a factor of five? Not exactly — because that other variable was a place

A man riding on a bicycle, seemingly dressed for an average workday. From Europe. How could it not be from Europe? Wikimedia Commons.

to park, and again I can speak from experience. I and a couple other guys rode to work when we were always having to lock our bikes to the fence by the parking lot, and I’ll never forget the day one of the others came back in furious that someone had stolen his seat. So when the paper put nothing more complex than a bike rack inside the building in a corner near a garage door, suddenly we saw ten or fifteen bikes there most days. More than that, we were an urban newspaper, and many reporters arrived on foot or bike or by train. So we had a stable of cars we could sign out for reporting trips. Think of how many people would ride to and from even suburban or business park workplaces if they knew they could reserve a car for an away-game business meeting — or to run to an appointment with doctor, barber, or attorney or out to the bank or to buy a quick birthday present.

Remember that bike lanes also make a difference — and that employers making the counterintuitive move of NOT providing free parking also helps. And you can see, as Jaffe sums up: “Bicycle commuting is a complex behavior that needs multiple layers of policy encouragement to thrive.” And remember — that’s just like all commuting, which is complex behavior affected by multiple layers of policy. All our policies for the past half-century have favored automobile commuting, so we shouldn’t be surprised that’s what most of us do. And changing policies and priorities doesn’t mean cars are wrong or that cycling requires public subsidy or management to thrive. Just that if we want different results, we have to take different actions.

Anyhow, I saw this first hand as a reporter, and things went well even without a shower. Anybody who’s ever worked with journalists knows that biking commute or no, anything that gets reporters to take more showers is a win for everybody.

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Squeedle 6:55 pm 07/25/2012

    You forget something, or perhaps you just didn’t mention specifically: the shower either has to be unisex (in which case it likely must be separate from the bathrooms), or the business has to install two showers. Both of these options may be more than the $5k you claim. We ladies do not appreciate only men having a shower.

    A polite term for the type of bathing you mean is “bird bath.” I’ve never heard the term you mention (but I bet I know the one you won’t). A tip for you: those microfiber rags you can get for $5 at the auto parts store work great as both towel and washcloth, since they’re super soft, super absorbent, and you can nearly wring them dry. I take them on travel for the same reasons.

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  2. 2. huler 7:00 pm 07/25/2012

    @squeedle you are quite right. I absolutely think of there being two showers, or one with a changing room and a door lock like a lavatory. I still think if you wanted this you could get it done quick and dirty for $5K, but even if it would take a bit more that’s quibbling. Squeedling? I in no way meant to imply that there would be only one shower, and even if I erroneously implied that, it is you leaping to the conclusion that if there were it would necessarily be for men only. I neither said nor implied that. I worked in a radio station in Nashville that had one for each; the Daily News had none for nobody, so potty parity was reached both places.

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  3. 3. huler 7:01 pm 07/25/2012

    and yes, bird bath! wonderful.

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  4. 4. davidwogan 7:04 pm 07/25/2012

    My current commute is like the one you had in Philly. I bike 6 miles in to work (all downhill – woohoo!) from Hyde Park in Austin, through UT campus, past the Capitol complex, and over the river. It’s a nice commute, and I enjoy the morning air and natural boost I get from pedaling. The way home is up hill, and in the summer that typically means 100 degrees or hotter. But it doesn’t matter (for me), because my bike ride fills in for a post-work jog, and I just shower at home.

    I’ve gotten pretty skilled at changing in the bathroom at work, careful to avoid stepping on the floor (bathroom floor = gross). We have showers at work, but I don’t get too sweaty coming in, so I skip that, but it’s nice to know that it is there. And a lot of other bikers use it in the morning.

    We have a connected parking garage with bike racks, so it is not only super convenient to lock up, it’s a little more secure than just being on the street. Bike lanes along the street outside are in the works, and will be great, because right now you just have to assert yourself in traffic. Luckily, it seems most folks in downtown Austin are used to dealing with bikes.

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  5. 5. larkalt 8:55 pm 07/25/2012

    All you REALLY need after a bikeride is air dry enough so your sweat can evaporate :)
    It works for me, anyway.
    - Laura

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  6. 6. huler 11:26 pm 07/25/2012

    @laura and you have discussed this with your coworkers? after a 30+ min. ride? i’m for air drying, but i’ve occasionally learned that it wasn’t so popular with those near me.

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  7. 7. oldvic 3:37 am 07/26/2012

    There’s another solution to the perspiration problem: an electric bike. I use one to go to work, with motor assist in the morning to avoid sweating, and without the motor during the trip home for exercise purposes (pedaling a 70-pound bike uphill is a great workout, believe me).
    Bike manufacturers are falling over each other to bring electric bikes to market these days, with a dizzying variety of bike styles and prices to choose from.

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 11:26 am 07/26/2012

    Enjoyed the article and the style.

    I used to bike to work when I was doing research in Germany. Note …Germans are very clean…the Dutch are also clean but neither are as obsessed as Americans with arificially squeaky clean bodies. Or, if they do have the need for ‘a’ shower it would be unisex (get over your hangups).

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  9. 9. jpotisch 12:22 pm 07/26/2012

    @Squeedle, our office has a separate unisex bathroom containing the shower stall you describe. I suspect in our case it actually saved money, because otherwise the men’s and women’s bathrooms would have to be made a) bigger, and b) with their own shower stalls.

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  10. 10. gmperkins 3:23 pm 07/26/2012

    It is a good point and for many larger companies all they need is a safe place to store and lock up your bike since they usually have a small gym area with showers already setup somewhere.

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  11. 11. denisosu 5:53 pm 07/26/2012

    Great article! It’s obvious to people who cycle, but not to those who don’t. I remember the look of bemusement on an interviewer’s face during the following exchange:

    - do you have any questions about our company?
    - do you have showers and lockers?
    - yes, why? we have lockers for the plant operators who need to change.
    - would I be able to get one?
    - I’m not sure. Why would you need one? You’ll have your own desk.
    - Can you please find out?

    There was no way I was taking that job if I didn’t have a locker and the possibility to shower. It was the difference between two refreshing 45-minute bike-rides (both started downhill and finished uphill) and 2 1-hour car rides in gridlocked rush-hour traffic.

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  12. 12. maryfobian 4:36 pm 08/2/2012

    Sorry to intrude here with a somewhat off-topic comment, but I’m on a mission.

    You wrote, “… massively improves your likelihood to ride …”

    Heads up, journalists: PLEASE don’t resort to (and promulgate) lame, made-up adverbs such as “massively.” MASS conveys notions of physical size, density and weight. There are so many more appropriate and exciting adverbs to use. Try this on for size: “spectacularly improves your likelihood …”

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  13. 13. huler 3:12 pm 08/6/2012

    Ok, @maryfobian, thanks … -ish, for your comment. But though I have no objection to the comment (though I object to what I perceive as a snide tone: “lame”? “made-up”? that’s pretty judgmental and unkind language) I’m going to have to respond by holding it, and you, up as examples of exactly what’s wrong with many comment streams.

    You accused me — and others — of “resort[ing] to” “lame, made-up adverbs such as ‘massively.’” I object first, again, to the tone. Watch that, please. You may object to a particular usage, but you can say so politely rather than sarcastically. I object second to the value of your mission. In a post of approximately 800 words you really felt it was worth taking the time to lead the comments thread on a detour that had nothing to do with the content? that focused on a single word? That is, you’re commenting on one-eighth of one percent of this article. And here I am, responding, which takes my time, and takes the time of readers. Was this really worth everyone’s time? I feel as author of this piece I have an obligation to respond to criticism, though in this case I’m responding especially because I’m irritated.

    Which brings up my third objection. Regrettably, @maryfobian, you are completely wrong. Far from being “made-up” (I mean, all words are made up at some point, but I think you imply that I made up this word when writing because I was too lazy or lame to bother doing the work to find a better word), “massively” has been in use for centuries. In 1844 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her “A Vision of Poets,” described “pauses massively aloof,” a lovely phrase and a lovely usage that uses “massively” exactly as I did. If you go no further back than the 1981 M-W 9th New Collegiate (the one that happens to be on my desk) you’ll find, to be sure, that the first two definitions of “massive” refer directly to the properties of mass — a massive thing occupies space and has weight, in significant degree. All other usages (there are six) refer to largeness in scope or degree, to extensiveness or grandeur. That is, “massively” is perfectly acceptable and has been for centuries, and even “massive” sees far more use as metaphor than as concrete descriptor. You may object to this, though if you do I suggest you take it up with Ms. Browning, a far greater writer than me. Even so, I may object to your suggestion of “spectacularly” as an improvement over my “massively,” but again, this is hair-splitting, and one of my objections is that it barely merits discussion.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that you’ve raised an issue that has nothing to do with the post; that you’ve used an unnecessarily snide tone; and that the entire criticism you levied was incorrect, which you would have known had you taken the time to do nothing more difficult than look up the usage you criticized in a dictionary.

    You see? To my mind, this is the problem with most comments threads. Off the point, needlessly objectionable in tone, and worst of all completely wrong. I happen to feel that most lists of grammatical objections (they are legion) make most of these errors, but that’s another matter entirely.

    So, heads up, misguided missionaries: please make sure your comments are politely stated and are worth raising in the first place. And above all, please do your homework.

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  14. 14. grantjohnson26 12:44 am 08/25/2012

    Kind of a strange thing but I suppose it makes sense if you think about it. It’d be nice to be able to shower and not be all nasty at your place of work. Miami Heat Snapbacks

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