Business cyclists: Executives share some bike safety tips
At 7:29 a.m., as SUVs and buses jockey for position along Seattle's 15th Avenue West, a bicyclist glides up to the steel-door service entrance of GM Nameplate.
His reflective clothing, atop cleated shoes that clink like a tap dancer's as he crosses the pavement, connotes no particular social status, but this bicyclist happens to be the company's chief financial officer, Alan Elser.
Elser, 49, is among the growing ranks of Seattle executives who choose to go to work on a bike. Enduring the region's months of rain and year-round threat of accidents - such as the truck collision that killed Seattle bike commuter Lance David on May 1, the first day of Bike to Work Month - cycle commuters are rising in numbers and visibility.
Executives interviewed by the Puget Sound Business Journal may spend $7,000 or more on the two-wheel rigs they ride to work. And once they get to the office, they exhort their employees to join the parade, pumping up their motivation by installing showers, hair dryers and lockers, and handing out clean towels, cash incentives - even free bikes.
Yet these business leaders, so accustomed to wielding power in many arenas, also often express frustration with the biking minority's still-slim imprint on the region's transportation network.
"Seattle has done a lot of its bike infrastructure on the cheap," said Josh King, general counsel and vice president of legal website Avvo Inc. "It touts the miles of bike paths, but some of them are dangerous and downright unusable."
Until that landscape changes, bike commuters find their own paths. How do executives make a two-wheeled commute fit into their busy lives? How do they inspire their employees to follow suit? How to stay safe?
To find out, the Business Journal caught up with several business leaders on their way to the office.
Clearing your head
Forget for a moment the environmental blessings that come with substituting each fuel-burning behemoth for a bike. For people who spend their days doing high-stakes brain work, the physicality of starting and ending those days with a ride - unplugged from the internet and face to the wind - brings blessings of its own.
"Riding in in the morning is a great way to wake up and plan your day. Riding home is a chance to decompress," said GM Nameplate's Elser.
Elser has 24 miles each way to plan his day and decompress from it during his three-times-a-week rides between his office in Seattle's Interbay district and his home in the May Valley area between Issaquah and Renton.
But even the much-shorter daily ride taken by Avvo's King offers such rewards that he doesn't bother owning a car.
"I love my commute and look forward to it each day," said King, who rides from Seattle's north Capitol Hill to his office in the International District.
Even those who bear the scars of injuries still feel the emotional pull from bike riding.
Nine years ago, Ian Blaine, CEO of Seattle online video publishing company thePlatform, got hit by an SUV that was towing a boat. He broke his leg badly, and didn't commute by bike again for about five years.
But by 2008, he figured he was more in danger of having a heart attack at his desk than getting hit on his bike. Plus, he missed the ride.
"Riding your bike makes you feel like a 12-year-old," said Blaine, now 43. "It freshens your mind."
Riding a thin line
None of the commuters interviewed by the Business Journal has escaped from a lifetime of two-wheeling unscathed.
Seattle Children's Hospital President Lisa Brandenburg, 49, who rides a $2,000 blue K2 Mod 5.0, got scraped up when she couldn't get her foot out of the pedal.
Pike Place Market PDA Executive Director Ben Franz-Knight, 40, who pedals a $252 black Wald 139, fractured his shoulder blade while in college.
But Avvo's King, who in dry weather depends on his yellow, $900 Salsa Casseroll, walked away with just bruises when he slammed into a van that had suddenly pulled out in front of him on Seattle's Pine Street.
"Broke his mirror," King said, "and left a dent the size of my ass in his door."
Motor vehicles, of course, are not a cyclist's only nemesis. For GM Nameplate's Elser, the adversary has more often been wildlife. Elser has had collisions with a pigeon and a duck (neither bird survived), and he has been on rides with companions who were injured by a puppy and a deer.
All the execs have their own suggestions for dealing with the challenges of city biking. King's is: "You have to ride more aggressively."
A lot of bikers ride close to the curb. But that makes them less visible to drivers and also exposes them to pedestrians, doors of parked cars swinging open and cars cutting in front of them.
"Be prepared to take the lane," King advised. "Ride in the full lane of traffic, just as a car would."
But even while taking up a prominent position on the road, bike commuters survive by assuming they're invisible.
"You're on a very small piece of metal and rubber," said thePlatform's Blaine.
There is, of course, plenty of gear to make cyclists more visible. Those interviewed by the Business Journal favor high-powered flashing front strobe lights, helmet lights and reflective helmets and jackets.
But no safety gear can substitute for vigilance. Or, as the Pike Place PDA's Franz-Knight put it: "Eyes up."
In addition, biking execs suggest that the area's cities could improve safety by marking intersections more clearly and using physical barriers between bike and traffic lanes.
But one factor that could improve bike safety the most, experts say, is ... more bikes.
John Duggan, a Seattle attorney whose practice consists almost entirely of representing victims of bicycle collisions, knows better than most all the bad things that can happen, but still chooses to ride his bike every day from Bellevue to his Pioneer Square office.
"Every mile I spend on the bike," he said, "improves the situation for everybody."
It's one less car spewing pollution and adding to the impact on the roads. But that's not the only reason.
Research shows that cities with large numbers of cyclists, such as Amsterdam and Portland, have lower accident rates than those with fewer bikes, Duggan said.
A 2003 Australian public health study said that if the amount of cycling doubles, the risk of a cyclist's having a collision decreases by 34 percent.
"It's critical mass," Duggan said. "There are so many cyclists on the road that drivers have no choice but to pay attention."
In Seattle, too, the number of cyclists has increased considerably faster than the number of accidents has. While the number of bike collisions reported to police each year has stayed fairly flat over the last decade - there were 352 in 2011, compared to 316 in 2002 - the number of bike commuters over that same span of time has soared to 11,986, from 3,543. according to the Seattle Department of Transportation.
If the trend continues, tension between drivers and cyclists will decrease, bicycle advocates hope
"It's a learning curve, Duggan said, "we go through as a whole culture."
One way for business leaders to hasten the process, of course, is to lead their own employees into the two-wheeling habit.
Many are already doing so, with encouragement from the Cascade Bicycle Club, which recently started a BizCycle program that rates companies on criteria such as whether they provide covered bike parking and showers, get involved in bike advocacy and give workers financial incentives to bike.
Seattle Children's Hospital tops the club's latest list of bike-friendly workplaces. It offers a $3.25 daily bonus to employees who bike to work (or use another alternative commuting method), and provides a bicycle to any employee who pledges to use it to commute to work at least twice a week.
Children's also provides showers and bike storage, and every year offers employees a free tune-up, hiring local bike shop employees to service bikes at the hospital.
"We're bike crazy here," said Brandenburg, the hospital president, who bikes to work herself from her home on Capitol Hill. "I believe as health care employees, we want to be healthy ourselves as an example to patients, families, and the community."
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