Snow, rain and sleet can’t keep Rob Gusky and his bicycle off the roads of Wisconsin.
Most days the Kimberly-Clark Corp. engineer makes the 17-mile round trip to his office in Neenah, about 100 miles from Milwaukee. When winter makes commuting treacherous, Gusky, 48, trades in his Trek for a Schwinn with studded tires.
Gusky has plenty of company these days. He is one of about 765,000 Americans who regularly bike to work, according to 2009 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s up 22 percent since 2006. Those numbers likely will grow as such companies as Kimberly-Clark, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc. step up their efforts to get employees to leave their cars at home, said cycling advocate Andy Clarke.
"Every company is on the lookout for something that gets more people physically active," said Clarke, who runs the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "They’re looking for something that’s going to have long-lasting effect, and know there’s a cycling piece to it."
Companies are keen to keep employees fit as they stare down health-care costs that are forecast to rise 8.2 percent to $10,730 per employee in 2011, according to a study by benefits consulting firm Towers Watson.
Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies diapers and Viva paper towels, has long encouraged work-life balance and added a gym at its Neenah location more than 30 years ago. The company’s “Get Up and Ride” biking plan, which Gusky helped create, began at three locations in 2008. It has since expanded to include 62 sites worldwide, half of them in the U.S., with about 5 percent of Neenah’s 3,200 employees taking part.
At Sprint’s base in Overland Park, Kansas, employees who cycle more than 10 days a month get a 15 percent discount on fees to use the company’s fitness center. Sprint, the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier, started its “Smart Commute Program” in April 2009. Six dedicated bike lockers and various bike racks have been built on site, while about 20 communal bicycles are available for employees to get around the campus, according to Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for the company.
Texas Instruments, the second-largest U.S. chipmaker, has worked with local government to lengthen and improve bike trails around its Dallas headquarters. The number of cyclists taking part in the company’s annual “Bike to Work Day” has increased tenfold in six years, according to Craig Herteg, the company’s bike scheme coordinator.
“When you become healthier, you perform better,” said Herteg, 50, who lost 50 pounds in less than six months after he began cycling to work in 2004.
U.S. cities, too, are encouraging people to ride rather than drive -- in some cases taking their cues from Europe where bike commuting is more established. Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco all have improved their cycling infrastructure over the past few years.
Portland officials have visited the Netherlands, where bike networks link the entire country, to study best practices. Today, the greater Portland area is crisscrossed by more than 300 miles of bike lanes and many older lanes have been widened.
“Our approach has been to create good conditions where people aren’t scared of cars,” said Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator at the city’s Bureau of Transportation.
Still, Portland has a way to go before it catches up with Amsterdam. Cyclists account for 6 percent of daily commutes in the Oregon city, according to census data, while more than 30 percent of commuters in Amsterdam cycle to work. About three-quarters of all Americans still prefer to drive to work.
Not Gusky, who remains committed even after breaking a bike frame mid-commute, a mishap that required his wife to rescue him. Gusky gave his Toyota Corolla to his son and says he has saved $3,000 in the past two years even after shelling out for his two bikes and weather-proof clothing.
“I keep all my receipts and a note of the amount of money I’m saving on gas, insurance and expenses to show my wife we’re in the black,” Gusky said. “We’re saving money.”