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Cyclists hope for an extra push from Congress

May 20, 2010

Bicycle commuters brave the elements every day, but regardless of the forecast, Friday will be their day in the sun.

That is because Friday is Bike to Work Day, an annual event in which bike advocacy groups work to encourage first-time riders to try commuting by bicycle.

“It’s like putting on a nicotine patch to break the habit of driving,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, which is helping local groups organize Bike Month events. “We’re creatures of habit, but this is a good way to try something else without being left on your own.”

While the day will be marked by group rides and rallies, many cycling advocates hope that proposed changes to commuter tax credits and bike infrastructure can provide enough incentive for more people to bike to work.

Cycling advocates say they are encouraged by recent comments from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about promoting bike lanes and distributing transportation funds to give equal credence to bicyclists and pedestrians.

But the most effective way to get more people biking, they say, could be revising and promoting the Bicycle Commuter Tax Provision. The credit, which passed as part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, allows employers to offer $20 a month for employees who spend a “substantial” amount of their commute on a bicycle (usually three or more days a week). It is similar to receiving a subway card or parking pass and is meant to cover repairs, storage, new parts and any other expenses related to biking.

“That was meant to level the playing field,” said Erin Allweis, a spokesperson for Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), an avid cyclist who heads the Congressional Bike Caucus. “You can get fringe benefits for taking the Metro to work and you can even get it for parking expenses. But it didn’t cover people who were riding their bikes.”

Blumenauer is hoping to boost those credits with his “Green Routes to Work Act,” which he proposed last year. It would increase the monthly credit for biking, while also allowing commuters to combine credits across different types of transportation. For example, a commuter could bike two days a week, then take public transportation the rest of the time and have everything covered.

“With global warming on the rise, and Americans’ waistlines ever expanding, it is time to level the playing field for transportation options that are clean, healthy, and save people money at the pump,” Blumenauer said in a release. “Expanding the use of low-carbon transit is a quick, smart, and easy way to improve air quality, cut down on time spent idling in traffic, and save billions in gas costs.”

Clarke, who has been lobbying for a higher cycling tax credit for years, said he was “hopeful” that Blumenauer’s Green Routes bill would pass, given the changing image of bike transportation. But many employers may not know about the credit or may be confused about how to use it. To counter that, the League of American Bicyclists has a guide for businesses on its website and directs them to a tax bureau. Clarke said a simple way to improve the credit is to give the employees more leeway in applying it, rather than requiring them to submit receipts, which is not generally required for the other transportation benefits.

Businesses could go even further to promote bicycle commuting by installing simple infrastructure like bike racks or locker rooms, Clarke said. To promote such efforts, his group rates “bicycle-friendly businesses” to spotlight companies that make it easy for customers and employees to use their bikes.

But without bike trails and other infrastructure, employers can only provide so much of the push to promote commuting by bike.

Blumenauer would like to see more work on the local level. In March, he proposed the “Active Community Transportation Act,” which would set up a $2 billion grant program to offer Department of Transportation funds to communities for bicycle and pedestrian projects. The competitive review would offer grants ranging from $5 million to $15 million over three years to encourage more walkable and bikable communities.

The ACT act “allows the federal government to be a partner for communities that want to take advantage of the benefits of walking and biking,” Allweis said. “They need to accommodate everyone.”

Beyond just building trails, Greg Billing, events assistant with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said communities could increase education and enforcement of bike safety laws. Community events like bike rodeos or even Bike to Work Day rallies can also help change residents’ commuting habits. But in the end, it is a matter of attracting the right commuters.

“A big part is encouragement and motivation,” said Meghan Cahill, a spokesperson for the biking league. “It’s how much effort the community and business and state put in place. But then it’s up to the people.”

To participate in Bike to Work Week in Mercer County, please visit the Greater Mercer TMA!

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