BIKE WORK WEEK 3-05162013124710 (copy)

Bicyclist pedal down the bike path at Monona Terrace in this May 16 file photo. The city may consider a reimbursement program for employees who start biking to work.

The city of Madison has been a long-time promoter of bicycle commuting. Now one city committee wants to talk about how to get city employees more involved.

The Sustainable Madison Committee will begin a discussion Monday on the potential for reimbursing city employees for giving up their parking spots in favor of biking, walking or taking a bus to work.

The meeting is at 4:30 p.m. in Room 300 of the City-County Building, 215 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The idea has been around for years, say city staffers.

 "There actually was a city resolution a long time ago supporting that," says Arthur Ross, city bicycle-pedestrian coordinator.

The concept re-emerges every now and then, but Ross says the idea never went anywhere.

But the odds might be better now. Bicycle commuting has gained popularity in recent years in Madison and across the nation, a reaction to higher gas prices, increasing traffic congestion, environmental awareness due to global warming and an emphasis on healthy lifestyles.

Tom Klein, Dane County director of the Bike Federation of Wisconsin, took the idea to committee member Rajan Shukla a few weeks ago to get the ball rolling.

Klein says the idea makes fiscal sense because the city provides employees with parking spaces that could command market prices, providing cash that could provide employees with an incentive to bike — or walk or bus — as well as give the city additional revenue.

"The county and the city own a significant number of parking spots downtown," Klein says. "They can charge market rates for those spots."

But the incentive also has a health benefit that increases employee productivity, he says.

"You create a system where you as an employer encourage folks to be healthier, and therefore they're more productive at work," he says. "Research suggests they take fewer sick days than people who don't bike or walk to work."

Incentive programs for bike commuting have been adopted in several cities, including San Francisco, Portland and Chicago.

Klein says that in some cities where incentive programs have been implemented, employees have initially balked because of worries that they won't have parking spots on days when bad weather, medical appointments, family obligations or other complications require them to have a car at work. One solution, he says, is setting aside a certain number of days for which they have access to a parking stall.

"That's a really important piece, making sure you provide a safety net for folks," he says. "That way they're less apprehensive about losing that spot. They know, say, 12 or 15 times a year they have access to that parking spot for free. So it's not completely gone."

He hopes that the idea will gain more traction than it has in the past because the city stands to gain more money from the parking lots, which increase in value over time, and because city employees who already bike, walk or take a bus to work can be role models for those who are interested in starting.

"You have that support network to start doing it," he says. "Anything we can do on the city level to encourage people to bike, walk or use mass transit is a good thing."

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.