10:00pm

Sun November 28, 2010
Health

Switching Gears: More Commuters Bike To Work

Originally published on Mon November 29, 2010 7:41 am

One way National Geographic staffers in Washington, D.C., can get to know their company's CEO is to take him up on his long-standing offer: to go for a lunchtime bike ride.

"Anyone still downstairs? OK, so we ready to go, guys?" National Geographic Society CEO John Fahey asks a group of about 20 employees

Fahey, an avid biker, says he's just trying to encourage a little exercise -- and he wants the opportunity to get to know folks informally. As the group makes the 15-mile trek to Hains Point along the Potomac River and back, Fahey makes a point of chatting with everyone, staffers say.

At National Geographic -- which is a hub of outdoorsy, adventure-seeking types who think nothing of biking busy city streets -- lots of the staffers who join Fahey for the lunchtime rides also use their bikes to get to and from work every day.

"I've been riding in for 19 years," says senior photo editor Dan Westergren, adding that he has definitely noticed the boom -- especially as bike paths and bike lanes along city streets have improved.

Westergren's commute is a combined 12 miles to and from home. And he says, given all the biking he does, he doesn't need a gym membership to stay fit.

"Really, to build it into your daily routine by commuting for me has just been the best thing," he says.

Cycling Culture

If you bike to work in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Chicago or San Francisco, you're part of a boom. Cycling has at least tripled over the past two decades in these -- and other -- big cities across the U.S.

"It's almost like a snowball effect," says researcher John Pucher of Rutgers University. "People see other people cycling and they say, 'Wow!' " As part of a three-year research project for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pucher has completed a preliminary report that documents the increase in biking in nine major North American cities.

"It's almost become a cultural phenomenon," Pucher says. "It's become the 'in' thing to do." For many city dwellers, it's a money saver, a time saver and a way to sneak in daily exercise.

Research shows that the extra physical activity that people get from walking and biking to work or school is not offset by less recreational activity.

"[Active commuters] actually double the amount of their total physical activity," says Pucher. And as a result, Pucher says cities with lots of "active" commuters tend to be healthier. The most recent evidence comes from a study Pucher and his colleagues published in the American Journal of Public Health.

They found that the U.S. cities with the highest rates of walking and cycling to work have obesity rates that are 20 percent lower and diabetes rates that are 23 percent lower -- compared with U.S. cities with the lowest rates of walking and cycling.

Just 'Hide The Bike Grease'

There are, of course, a few daily obstacles. Take the weather. "In the winter it's just gross sometimes with the ice," staffer Julia Yordanova says. And there are also the dangers of traffic. "It's the cab drivers," says Jonathan Irish.

Not to mention the need to try to fit in a shower at the office. "You just try to hide the bike grease on your calf as you're sitting in a meeting," says Barbara Noe, an editor at Travel Books.

But hey, if the office culture tolerates a little sweat on the brow -- or grease on the calf -- take it a sign of good health. That's the way Pucher sees it.

Pucher says, "Most people understand that walking and cycling is healthy. They don't think as something they could integrate into their daily lives."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

More and more adults are getting their exercise riding bikes. And in some cities - like Minneapolis, Portland, Washington, D.C. - they're biking to work. Consider our colleague, White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. He sometimes shows up to work here at MORNING EDITION after biking through the middle of the night.

Researchers at Rutgers University say the number of cyclists commuting in these cities - Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Portland - has tripled in the last couple of decades.

NPR's Allison Aubrey takes us to a workplace where dozens of cyclists commute.

ALLISON AUBREY: The headquarters of National Geographic is in D.C., just a few blocks from the White House. And as I learned a few weeks ago, it is full of outdoorsy, adventure-seeking types who think nothing of biking busy city streets.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Mr. JOHN FAHEY (CEO, National Geographic Society): We try to obey the traffic laws and stay, you know, on the right side of the streets.

AUBREY: That's John Fahey, the boss at the National Geographic Society, the CEO. He's an avid biker, and one of the ways you can get to know him - even if you have just an entry-level job - is to take him up on his lunchtime offer to ride.

Mr. FAHEY: Anyone else downstairs? Okay. So we ready to go, guys?

AUBREY: It's one of the last warm, sunny days of fall, and about 20 staffers have turned out. Some have racing bikes. One woman shows up on a banged-up 10-speed, trading high heels for sneakers. And then there's staffer Susan Straight.

Ms. SUSAN STRAIGHT (National Geographic Society): I haven't ridden as much lately, and I'm on probably the slowest bike out here. I'm on my old mountain bike.

AUBREY: She won't break any records today, but that's not the point. John Fahey says he's just trying to encourage a little exercise, and he likes getting to know folks informally.

Mr. FAHEY: What happens is, I find out sort of what the scuttlebutt in the hallways is. And sometimes, it's totally ill-informed and sometimes, it's spot-on. But it's really good to know what people think.

AUBREY: Most of the writers here use their bikes to get to and from work every day. Photo editor Dan Westergren has been biking in for 19 years. He says he has noticed a biker boom in D.C.

Mr. DAN WESTERGREN (Photo Editor, National Geographic Society): Yeah, there's definitely a lot more people riding in.

AUBREY: His daily commute is about 12 miles a day, to and from home. And when he adds in a few lunchtime rides with the boss, Westergren says he doesn't need a gym membership to stay fit.

Mr. WESTERGREN: Really, to build it into your daily routine by commuting -for me has always just been the best thing. And when the kids were little, I never had time to go out and recreationally bike ride. And it was really important to bike ride, so commuting became the way that I just ride all the time.

AUBREY: It's always easy to skip the gym or an exercise class, but if your bike is your one way home, you don't have much of a choice, even if there are a few drawbacks, says Julia Yordanova.

Ms. JULIA YORDANOVA (National Geographic Society): In the winter, it's just gross, sometimes, with the ice.

AUBREY: Then you have to fit in a shower at the office, says Barbra Noe.

Ms. BARBARA NOE (National Geographic Society): You're just trying to hide, like, the bike grease on your calf as you're sitting in a meeting or whatever. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: But hey, if the office culture tolerates a little sweat on the brow or grease on the calf, take it as a sign of good health. That's the way biking researcher John Pucher, of Rutgers, sees it.

Professor JOHN PUCHER (Rutgers University): Most people understand that walking and cycling is healthy, but they don't think of this as something they could integrate into their daily lives.

AUBREY: His studies actually show that cities with the highest numbers of active commuters have significantly lower rates of chronic diseases - for instance, 25 percent fewer cases of type 2 diabetes. And National Geographic's John Fahey says: Who doesn't feel invigorated after a bike ride?

Ready to go?

Mr. FAHEY: Fantastic. A beautiful day for a ride, and I couldn't ask for anything more.

Ms. LORI EPSTEIN (National Geographic Society): The more fresh air we get, the happier we are. I mean, it's a no-brainer.

AUBREY: And Lori Epstein adds: What boss doesn't want that?

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.