Help for Pedaling Commuters

By Martha Frase Sep 1, 2009
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August Cover​One of the little-known provisions of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008—the stimulus bill—is section 211, which allows employers to offer a "qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement" for "reasonable expenses incurred by the employee during such calendar year for the purchase of a bicycle and bicycle improvements, repair, and storage, if such bicycle is regularly used for travel between the employee’s residence and place of employment."

At $20 a month, it’s a benefit that may not be an economic motivator for many, according to Larry Filler, president and chief executive officer of TransitCenter Inc., an independent nonprofit corporation that offers commuter benefit payment systems. Few companies have taken it up, he says. "The legislation is written as a cash reimbursement program and can’t be used in combination with another transit benefit, so it is not the most attractive way to offer it." He says he hopes "Congress can fix it so it works like other transit benefits."

One business that has embraced the biking benefit is Meredith Corp. of Des Moines, Iowa, a media and marketing company that publishes magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Parents. Because the new Internal Revenue Service code lacks some detail, such as how often an employee must bike to work to qualify for the benefit, the company’s wellness manager, Tim O’Neil, consulted with Meredith’s legal counsel and the American League of Bicyclists to design a self-administered program. "We wanted to make sure we were using the benefit the way it is intended—to encourage employee fitness and to reduce our carbon footprint," he says.

Bike commuters will submit receipts once a year for expenses—bike purchase or upgrades, gear, parking, and storage—along with a tracking log showing the days they biked. Meredith offers the benefit to employees who bike to work at least 50 percent of the time. It also provides showers and secure parking.

O’Neil says he is not sure how many employees are currently commuting on two wheels; he won’t have the numbers until reimbursement receipts come due in the spring. He is hoping for 200 or more of the company’s workforce of 3,000. "We’ve promoted biking to work in a lot of ways over the years," he says. "We see this benefit program as just an enhancement to what is already a robust and engaging program."

Regardless of whether their employers provide tax-free benefits, bike commuters can be found in companies of all sizes and industries, and they’re not necessarily the young and athletic. Last year, when gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon, John Paul Hudson, 54, bought a Schwinn Continental and started pedaling the 10 miles to the Nissan dealership in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is an automobile technician. His employer doesn’t offer a bicycle benefit, he says, but he’s noticing a personal benefit: He is losing weight as a result of the low-impact aerobic exercise. "Riding for me clears my head and gets my heart beating," he says.

Even without offering the $20-per-month benefit, employers can help their bicycling employees by providing bike racks and lockers, or letting employees store bicycles in their offices. Bicyclists—and walkers too—also appreciate access to showers and changing facilities either in the workplace or at nearby health clubs.

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