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Simplest Bike Commuting Infrastructure: The Shower

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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 hitchcockwiki.com.

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.

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

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