When Work Commutes Dried Up, Some Bike Benefit Programs Shifted to Reward Mountain Bikers

My friend Paul traded his urban bike commute for one that looked a little different during lockdown.

Ryan Birkicht comes across as a bit of a salesman. Not the sleazy, used-car type, more like the tech evangelist who seems genuinely bent on making things better. As the Director of Enterprise Partnerships at People for Bikes, it’s his job to convince big companies that they should implement employee bike programs, and fortunately he’s skilled at speaking their language.

Mountain bikers don’t tend to think of the benefits of riding in terms of dollars and cents, but corporations do. For them, Birkicht tells me employee bike program benefits generally come down to meeting one or two main objectives: reducing carbon emissions and improving employee heath and wellness.

“Sustainability tends to be the the hottest topic right now, when it comes to bike benefits programs. So a lot of organizations are working to offset their carbon emissions,” Birkicht tells me. For companies that are pursuing carbon neutrality, employee transportation is one of the metrics they track, and any program that reduces car commutes is seen as a plus. “That’s been the one that’s gotten me on the phone with the most organizations.”

So when the pandemic hit and many offices shut down, employees were no longer commuting to work. For companies strictly focused on the carbon offsets that come from cycling, it meant a shift in thinking.

“Usually, the assumption they make is that they would only ever incentivize their employees or encourage their employees to ride their bikes to a physical office,” Birkicht says. “With the new work from home environments […] organizations are encouraging their employees to ride bikes, anywhere.”

That means encouraging trips to the store, shuttling kids to practice, and even working from the local coffee shop. Not only that, some companies are now adapting their programs to recognize the physical and mental benefits of cycling too.

Of course mountain biking is arguably one of the best examples of an activity that boosts both physical and mental health, and it’s especially well-suited to pandemic living.

“Employers do see a lot of burnout with the pandemic lately,” Birkicht says. “So like, as you’ve seen, with the great resignation, a lot of employees are experiencing mental burnout. And one of the ways to respond to that is by encouraging physical activity, i.e., riding their mountain bikes and getting in the woods, getting some fresh air. So if the organization is trying to come up with solutions to eliminate burnout, or reduce employee burnout, you know, they could cater their bike benefits programming to incentivize employees to do those types of activities.”

People for Bikes has created program assets that make it easy for companies to start bike benefit programs, though most tend to customize the program to fit their needs and organization. At the core, most programs reward employees either financially (generally $2-4 per bike ride) or with prizes and recognition for riding. To track and share rides, employers and employees can make use of the Ride Spot app provided by People for Bikes. Beyond that, People for Bikes helps employers identify and overcome barriers to participation — whether that be a lack of safe, on-site bike parking or bike lanes in the surrounding community.

While paying employees a few dollars per ride doesn’t sound like a big investment, Birkicht says it tends to get workers interested.

“I do think a lot of the motivation is the cash. But you know, there’s [also] an element of community around it.”

And even that small amount of cash can add up; for employees at People for Bikes who complete a maximum of 25 rides in a month, that’s an extra $100 which can be put toward a new mountain bike, or at least pay for a new tire.

If money is corporations’ lingua franca, brand image and optics are their body language. Just look at how many ads feature smiling people riding bikes. Birkicht says for many businesses, bike programs aren’t just about reducing costs; they also help attract active and dedicated employees. “I think a huge part of the allure of the programming is […] optics so that they can attract and retain employees.”

Readers: Does you company incentivize bike commuting or mountain biking? If so, what does the program look like? Tell us about it in the comments!