There is a theory in the economics and social psychology (*cough* same thing) that says that if you use extrinsic incentives to affect behavior before allowing intrinsic incentives to materialize in behavior, you’re not only going to spend more time/effort/money than you need to see the desired behavior change, but people may be less willing to change their behaviors.
Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
It’s called the Motivation Crowding Effect and was very well-researched in The Cost of Price Incentives: An Empirical Analysis of Motivation Crowding-Out. The paper describes a survey of Swiss citizens in 1993 when the government was siting two nuclear waste repositories. The Swiss citizenry was highly educated on the matter regarding nuke dumps and there was already significant debate on the matter.
These researchers surveyed one portion of the community asking if they’d be willing to have a repository in their area. 50.8% responded in the affirmative, 44.9% opposed the facility. 4.3% didn’t care. Such is the power of Swiss civic commitment! Try to get 50% approval for this in the States!
To test the effects of extrinsic incentives, the researchers repeated the exact question to a different selection of citizens within the same population, except adding that the Swiss government would compensate each citizen in the community either $2,175, $4,350, or $6,525 per year!
The level of acceptance dropped to 24.6%.
And then, everyone who rejected the $2,175/year offer was offered a 50%, 33%, and 25% increase on the respective offer. Only a single respondent who declined the first compensation was now prepared to accept the higher offer.
Blown away by the results, the researchers change communities altogether and go to Northern Switzerland. 41% would accept the nuke dump, 56.4% were against it, and 2.6% didn’t care. When offered compensation, the level of acceptance dropped to 27.4%.
So what’s going on here? Some are seeing the addition of financial incentive as proof of risk, liability, or some otherwise undisclosed downside. Others see the offer for some incentive and may want to hold out for a LOT of incentive.
Bicycle Commuter Incentives
Now how the hell does this affect the world of the bike?
Well, if you take a look at the business of bicycle advocacy, you’ll see a vast array of incentives and amenities available for businesses and organizations to demand and supply to make the lives of bicyclists better than non-bicyclists. Here’s a comprehensive list of bicycle commute incentives I’ve come across in the last 3 years, categorized by the style of incentive:
Standard Bicycle Parking – Standard bicycle parking is easy to understand. It’s a bike rack that meets minimum security requirements placed so it can be fully utilized and seen by passers-by.
Guaranteed Ride Home – A guaranteed ride home program facilitates transportation home for people who have commuted to work without a car but need to get home in an emergency. This could come in the form of paid taxi fare, bus/train fare, being driven home in a company car,etc.
Occasional Parking Passes – An employer with a paid parking system that requires the lack of permit to receive any other incentives may still provide a number of one-day permits for those days when biking to work is impractical.
Education – It’s hard to understate the value of bicycle education in the realm of cycling let alone bike commute. Suffice to say that an educated cyclist is safer, less stressed on the road, and a better ambassador than those who are trying to just “figure it out”.
Security – Appropriate bicycle-relevant security includes having local security and/or police cognizant of the laws, policies, and enforcement tactics relevant to cycling. This is important to create a safe, secure, and welcoming environment for the bike commuter and even the bike itself.
Showers – Making showers available at the work place is frequently cited as an incentive to start biking and a great support option for existing bicycle commuters.
Storage Lockers – Implied by having showers, but able to exist on their own, some suggest providing storage lockers for cycling commuter so they can store their helmet, bike clothes, etc. before heading to their specific work sites.
Bike Cages/Rooms/Stations – A bike cage or BikeStation is a fully enclosed and secured area in which one parks his/her bike. Locking is recommended at varying levels of security depending on the site.
Bike Lockers – Not to be confused with storage lockers, bicycle lockers are little personal garages in which people park bikes. The bike locker protects bicycles from weather damage and obscures more expensive bicycles from interested thieves.
Parking Cash-Out – The State of California requires employers that subsidize the cost of parking to give employees the opportunity to relinquish parking rights in favor of a monthly/yearly cash-out.
Bike-to-Work Awards – Some employers will literally pay employees to commute by bike. I’ve seen this range from $1/day to $5/day for biking. Some employers even commit to providing additional vacation days for those to choose a non-drive-alone commute or raffles, etc.
Bicycle Commuter Tax Benefit - In 2009, the IRS added the Bicycle Commuter Tax Benefit to the existing list qualified transportation fringe benefits (26 U.S.C. sec. 132(f)). Due to various restrictions, this perk is rarely actually cashed-in.
Unlike the parking and transit benefits, this is not a pre-tax perk for expenses– it’s an up-to-$20/month non-taxable reimbursement by the employer to the employee for qualified bicycle commute-related expenses (purchase of a bicycle, bicycle improvement, repair, and storage). Receipts of expenses must be provided. If you’ve ever worked within accounting or purchasing within a bureaucracy, you’ll know that it takes anywhere between $25 to $125 to process a reimbursement due to the oversight in processing such transactions.
The employer, as a result, gets to pay less federal taxes. But if your employers already doesn’t pay federal taxes (ie you work for a public agency or 501(c)3), there is no benefit. As such, it is very, very rare to see this benefit in actual implementation.
Bringing it All Together – Over-Advertising Rare Amenities
Imagine yourself as a an everyday drive-alone commuter. You drive 3 miles to work and 3 miles home. Work is well within a bikable and, arguably, a walkable commute. You’re likely within range of a transit option, as well. You’ve heard of people commuting to work, but thus far it’s not really for you.
But then you come across an article that says, “Hey, your employer could become bike-friendly in 5 easy steps!” You read on and the article says, “1. Bicyclists don’t want to go to work all sweaty. Build them bike showers!”
You think to yourself, “Ya… I don’t want to get to work all sweaty. I’ll consider biking if they install showers.”
Further on, the article reads, “2. Bicycle thieves can get through any lock. Build bike cages or install bike lockers!”
You think to yourself, “Ya… I don’t want to spend $600 on a bike only for it to get stolen. I’ll consider biking if they make a bike cage.”
Further on, the article reads, “3. People don’t want to have to deal with cars while biking to work. Locate your business near a major bike path!”
You think to yourself, “Ya… I don’t want to mess with cars, either! I’ll consider biking when I don’t have to set a single wheel on the same road as a car!”
And suddenly the article on bike commuting and what an employer can do to support bike commuters has instilled more hesitations and rationalizations than were natively in the the potential rider’s head.
The worst part is that not only are these types of bike commuter amenities rare, but they’ll always be rare because they’re all wrought with unreal expectations.
- Bike Showers
- Installation Needs – Separate room(s), plumbing, security
- Risk – More than one person in a shower, peepers, accidental flashing, slip hazards
- Drama – Time in the shower
- Cost – Significant
- Alternative – Have experienced bike commuters describe how well they get by without a shower after a bike commute and what particular steps they take to do so.
- Bike Cages
- Installation Needs – Space, construction, membership security system, cameras
- Risk – Little
- Drama – Little
- Cost – Significant
- Alternative – Educate on the best and worst types of bike locks in addition to best-case locking methods.
- Bike Path Proximity
- Installation Needs – Not within your control.
- Risk – None.
- Drama – The fight to get a bike path steered towards your work site or to have your work site change locations
- Cost – None, usually.
- Alternative – Accept that locating a bike path and business require levels of decision making and variable evaluation with which simple requests can’t compete. Instead, provide quality road bicycling education (TS 101, Cycle Savvy) to negate the professed need for bike paths.
Excellent. Now your potential cyclists won’t ride because they’re under the impression that all those things they heard about are fiscally possible and the only reasons you won’t implement such amenities is because you’re cheap!
Bringing it All Together – Over-Incentivizing
Incentives cost money, time, and effort. For the most part, there is no plug-and-play incentive or amenity out there aside from the “Support” incentives described above. Bike parking standards are well known (APBP), Guaranteed Rides Home are a standard practice within Transportation Demand Management, Free Occasional Parking is easy to wrap your head around, and all people understand the value of bike education (even if they’re unwilling to take part in it themselves).
Support incentives are also provide the best bang-for-the-buck. Having quality bike parking is a capital investment. Well-negotiated, you get install bike parking for $100/bike stall plus the land it occupies. And bike racks are built to last. Even with a campus of 12,000+ employees, we go through 2-3 GRH’s a month. Free parking is easy to organize if you control the parking. Bike education lasts a life time.
But consider the cost of the Amenities. Showers, storage lockers, bike cages, and bike lockers are all very expensive and you will likely need to recuperate their very high cost. That means limiting shower time, having to rent out the storage lockers and bike lockers, and charging a fee for use of the bike cage. So, instead of just capital expense, you have maintenance expense as well. The amenities will certainly be hits with existing cyclists, but just how many NEW cyclists will you get from it?
Cash incentives are the worst. If your company of 1,000 has a 5% bike commute rate and you implement a $5/day bike commuter award, without a single new rider, you’re in the hole $5,250/month. And if you’re wise enough to limit such an incentive to *new* bike commuters only, you still risk them ending their bike commute when their temporary cash incentive ends.
This has been a very, very long blog post that I will likely have to come back and edit. Regardless of edits, though, the premise will stay clear: Do not blindly throw incentives and amenities at potential bike commuters. Every single incentive you provide should be financially sustainable and work to *increase* the number of bike commuters by directly attacking their most significant hesitations. If a cheaper method of supporting your potential bike commuters exists, try it out.
But above all, do not resort to extrinsic incentives before fully exploiting the most pertinent intrinsic incentives to bike commuting.
- You don’t have to pay for parking.
- You don’t have to pay for commute fuel.
- You don’t put miles on your car.
- You get exercise on your commute and thus feel better everywhere.
- You lose weight/can eat more — or even both!
- Depending on your location, your bike commute may be shorter than your driving commute.
- You’re not polluting the air.