By Rod Kackley, June 19, 2013 1:15 PM
Atomic Object installed a bike rack outside its Grand Rapids office, only to see demand increase to the point that another rack was necessary.
The U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey estimated that 0.4 percent of the 81,823 people working in the city of Grand Rapids rode a bicycle to work. That's only 334 people.
But when Atomic Object put a single bike rack outside its Grand Rapids office, "all of a sudden, there were more bikes than could be secured, so we added another," said Mary O'Neill, business manager of the Grand Rapids-based software development company, which also has an office in Detroit.
"Then we realized there were people who wanted to bike in all seasons of the year, so we looked at a place to store bikes inside," O'Neill said.
Despite humble Census numbers, more employers in Grand Rapids may be pushed by their workers to follow Atomic Object's lead as the city government works to become more bicycle-friendly and encourage more people to pedal to work.
Grand Rapids officials — believing that if they build it, people will pedal — are putting together a 100-mile urban bike network.
City officials would like to see 2 percent of the workforce riding bikes to work and dream of being a bicycling mecca like Ann Arbor. In that city, nearly 5 percent of the workforce — or 2,782 of the 56,646 working adults, according to the 2011 Census report — get to work on bikes, the highest percentage of bicycle commuters in Michigan.
Christopher Zull, traffic safety manager for Grand Rapids, said his primary concern with bicycle commuting "is not utilization but the availability of access."
The urban network that Zull and Piotr Lewak, a traffic safety engineer for the city, have mapped out includes primary roads, neighborhood streets and trails that run through wooded areas and along the Grand River.
Lewak said 50 miles of the network have been completed at a cost of $10,000 per mile.
"We have taken care of the low-hanging fruit," he said. "Now we will start tacking the tougher projects."
Suzanne Schulz, Grand Rapids' planning director, admitted that the last half of the project won't be easy because the city doesn't have any five-lane streets where one lane easily could be set aside for bicyclists. She also expects more debates over the importance that Grand Rapids be bicycle-friendly.
"Bicycling gets at so many things, from public health to attracting the creative class and the millennial generation, who say they want to live in a place where they don't have to drive," Schulz said.
Let's say she, Zull and Lewak are right and hundreds more people start riding bikes to work. What is an office manager to do? Where will the bicycles be stored? How do you wash so many sweaty employees?
The Greater Grand Rapids Bicycling Coalition, for a fee, will help employers chart a path toward greater bicycle friendliness. Thomas Tilma, the coalition's executive director, said finding a place to store bikes and wash bikers before they start work are leading concerns.
Bicycles should be parked indoors, protected from vandalism and theft. Too much can happen to a bike left locked to an outdoor rack for eight hours.
Tilma said employers also have to realize "It is hard to encourage people to bike to work if they are going to have to sit on a seat that is soaked from a rain storm," Tilma said.
One Grand Rapids company that apparently has it figured out is Catalyst Partners, one of two Michigan businesses to have been awarded the gold standard of bicycle friendliness by The League of American Bicyclists — the other is The Hub of Detroit bicycle shop.
Catalyst Partners has 10 employees, six of whom work in its Grand Rapids office. Keith Winn, Catalyst's president and founder, said all are bicyclists, some of whom ride to work every day while others ride only a few days a week.
Catalyst Partners offers three wall racks for employees to store bicycles indoors. A shower and a changing area are also available.
Winn, himself an avid cyclist who rides to the office in the winter, said the shower — often the most desired and expensive piece of bicycle-friendly infrastructure — was no problem for Catalyst. It came with the building when he bought what used to be a flour mill on the northwest side of the city.
However, showers are expensive, which leaves many bicyclists washing up at the sink. An alternative: offering employees membership to a fitness center, where they could shower and change, said Andrea Winn, Catalyst's financial operations administrator.
At Steelcase Inc., a dozen to two dozen employees ride bikes to work at the company's global headquarters in suburban Grand Rapids.
David Rinard, Steelcase's director of global environmental performance, said the office furniture manufacturer offers indoor, electronic-card access to bike and equipment storage; showers; and "encouragement and incentives" tied to employee wellness programs.
Steelcase didn't leap into the bicycle-friendly world without looking.
"Like most things for us, it was an evolutionary process," Rinard said. "We started with a very simplistic survey and tried to get an understanding of what people value."
He also said Steelcase wouldn't be as bicycle-friendly as it is if Grand Rapids wasn't making it easier for people to pedal to work.
PHOTO COURTESY OF STEELCASE INC.
Steelcase Inc.'s Turnstone division sells a bike rack that attaches to either the desk or an office wall.
And to make it easier for people once they get there, Steelcase's Turnstone division has come up with an alternative for bicycle storage — a rack attached to the desk of the bicyclist that also can be removed from the desk and attached to an office wall.
Jim Abraham, Turnstone's marketing manager, said the company didn't set out to create bike racks. It just happened because its employees found themselves in small businesses developing the Bivi desk system and noticed how many people had bikes next to their desks or workstations.
"We saw a few bikes at almost every place we went," he said. "They were in the entryway, or in the corner, or leaning up against somebody's desk."
Richard Hartger, founder of Cycle Safe Inc. in Grand Rapids, has built and sold bicycle storage lockers and racks since the 1970s, when the oil embargo started pushing up the price of gasoline.
He sees similar momentum today.
"Improvements to access by bicyclists to employment centers can attract the best and brightest to your employment site, with retaining employees for lower costs to management," Hartger said.
Hartger's His best advice to the manager who wants to be more bicycle-friendly is to let the bike-riding employees show want they want.
"And ride a bike to work yourself a few times," he said.
Said O'Neill at Atomic Object: "You might think that putting in a bike rack would be expensive, but you could save money by buying or renting fewer parking spaces."