Shawn Bravender despises the rare day when he has to drive to work. Come rain, shine, or snow, Mr. Bravender prefers to bike 14 kilometres to his office at Stantec Inc., an engineering firm whose headquarters are in Edmonton, and who have been named as one of Canada's Greenest Employers.
With the right clothing on beneath his windbreaker, the 41-year-old avid cyclist says he's comfortable, even in Alberta's often sub-Arctic temperatures, but credits his employer's support with making his bike commute possible.
"By the time I get to the office, I'm in need of a shower, even if it's 30 below outside," says Mr. Bravender, an associate in the planning department. "Without the facilities here it would be pretty much next to impossible. My associates wouldn't want me cycling. But we have showers and lockers, a secure and heated bike lock-up in the parkade, and a bike repair stand with an air pump and tools to do fixes on the spot, so you're never stuck."
Another concern he and his fellow cyclists had was how to dress professionally, since most wear a suit and tie. As a suit isn't the sort of clothing you should throw in a backpack, Mr. Bravender used to drive in once every two weeks with his pressed shirts and suits, but the addition of a spot at the office where dry cleaning can be dropped off and picked up delivers extra incentive and convenience for everyone, including the non-cyclists.
"Four years ago, management gave me the space and a budget to put a facility together and promote it," says Mr. Bravender, who found a green dry cleaning business that picks up and delivers. "My suit is ready and waiting for me at work."
If more companies offered similar stuff, many commuters would likely switch to the bicycle to commute. But why should employers bother? Apart from the obvious reduction of carbon emissions, many say there are substantial benefits to companies that encourage workers to stop driving.
"Studies show that people who don't drive to work have increased focus at work and reduced stress levels because driving to work is a stressful activity," says Laura Franceschini, internal sustainability co-ordinator at Stantec. "If you take that stress out of someone's morning or afternoon commute, it increases their ability to concentrate, and their productivity."
Mr. Bravender says he can feel the physical and mental difference between the days when he drives the ones where he "peddles his guts out" to and from work. Although he started cycling about 16 years ago, out of necessity when he was a student, he continues to "cling to the bike" for its health benefits and as his environmental awareness has increased.
"The stress reduction is phenomenal," says Mr. Bravender. "It's a huge part of my life to stay active, reduce the impact on the environment and help out the bank account."
Ms. Franceschini credits Mr. Bravender for bringing attention to the need for more facilities for staff who use alternative transportation to get to work. Plus, the success of company initiatives such as their Cool Commute Challenge, which started as a small bike to work event in 2007, has greatly increased the number of riders at the firm. Last year, almost 100 of Stantec's 160 offices across North America participated in finding alternative forms of transportation to work - cycle, walk, public transit, car pool or telecommute - for the month of June. Many kept on cycling. The Edmonton office has had to increase their bike parking four times in the past five years to about 80 spaces.
That's an issue Beverley Townsend understands. The manager of environmental sustainability for Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre - another of Canada's Greenest Employers - says they're bursting at the seams with cyclists in the summer, with only a few less in the winter.
Situated on 100 acres of land with bicycle paths that lead down to Sunnybrook Park, they actively encourage cycling through their partnership with Smart Commute, a company that helps employers promote different commuter choices, and have worked to create a cycling friendly environment for both staff and the public.
"With 15 bicycle lots for 21 different buildings, we're pretty much covering all areas for staff to park their bike as opposed to parking their car," says Ms. Townsend. "We also have a bike rack map so people can find all the bike racks. They're labelled according to whether they're covered and secure or uncovered. Some are inside parking garages in a cage so you need a pass to get in. We have some fairly avid cyclists with very expensive bikes so it's an added feature for security."
Sunnybrook also offers a shower facility map so people can know where the showers are located and what the access is - whether it's open access or restricted to employees. It even includes a warning about one that's "a bit grim" with the number to call for a cleaner. Staff have also been treated to information sessions about best routes to take to get to work and flat-tire changing workshops.
The health sciences centre also promotes car pooling and is planning preferential parking for staff multi-occupancy vehicles as well as for hybrid and electric vehicles. Similarly, Stantec supports other sustainable transportation choices through a partnership with the City of Edmonton for their transit pass program. Employees are able to buy transit passes at a 25 per cent discount, with the cost shared between Stantec and the city. The company can deduct the passes automatically off their employees' payroll and track the tax implications for them for a tax credit that they can apply for.
Still, biking has one unavoidable trade-off. "I commute through what I call protected routes - I try to pick streets with low volume - particularly in the winter, to make sure there's enough room for vehicles and myself," says Mr. Bravender, who says he's had a few close calls. "I'm no stranger to cycling in traffic and I don't mind it, but my wife likes me to take every precaution that I can. You have to be very aware and very visible with your lighting system. You have to regulate how you behave on the road. You are a vehicle. But I don't perceive it to be a risky commute. The benefits far outweigh the risks."
Special to the Globe and Mail