Want People to Cut Their Carbon Emissions? Start Paying Them

Economists say cold hard cash can get commuters out of their cars.

(Photo: Mal Langsdon/Reuters)

Hannah Hoag reports on the environment, global health, science, and science policy for Nature, Discover, Wired, and others.

Would you bike to work if someone paid you to? France launched an experiment last week that aims to ease the rush-hour commute by putting more bikes on the road. The average cyclist won’t get rich under the scheme: She stands to pocket just enough for a daily café au lait.

Will it really work? Economists think so, but there’s a catch. (More on that in a bit.)

There are, of course, many good reasons to get more bikes on the road: It cuts back on air pollution, noise, and carbon emissions, all while boosting riders’ health. But those benefits haven’t been enough to get significant numbers of commuters in many cities to get pedaling.

Research into cycle-to-work schemes concludes that individuals are not short on reasons to leave their bicycle in the garage. Several studies on the attitudes of would-be cyclists find that inconveniences such as weather and bike theft, as well as perceived danger, rank high among those who choose not to bike to work. 

Employees are more likely to ride to work if cities promote safe cycling and if employers invest in such things as covered bike parking, showers, and changing rooms. But these measures often only attract people who are predisposed to cycle to work.

“Businesses have to provide a conducive environment, but it’s not enough to have great bike parking. You need the human infrastructure as well,” said Amelia Neptune, who manages the Bicycle Friendly America program at the League of American Bicyclists, based in Washington, D.C.

Translation: Cold hard cash just might do the trick. But can offering small amounts of money to cyclists change urban transportation patterns?

“I think it can,” said Heather Royer, a health economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The size of the population being incentivized can have a huge effect on the culture of biking and making the environment more amenable to biking.”

There’s been little research into the impact of cash incentives on cycling behaviors, but economists have studied how dollar bills affect healthy behaviors. “You can pay people to do things, but when you stop paying them, they revert back to their previous existing behaviors,” said Royer.

Royer and her colleagues studied the role incentives played in getting employees from Fortune 500 companies into the gym. Paying for gym memberships had no effect, Royer’s March 2013 study found, because there wasn’t a perception of a benefit. Offering people $10 per visit for up to three visits per week doubled attendance—though once the cash incentive dried up, employees lost their motivation.

Compared with other European countries, the French are not big bike commuters. About 2 percent of work commutes are completed on bikes, averaging a little over two miles each way. In Germany and Denmark, in contrast, about 20 percent of commuters opt to bike, and in the Netherlands nearly 30 percent do.

The French government aims to double the number of cyclists on the road during the six-month experiment. Swapping the projected 87 million car-driven miles for cycled ones in 2014 would result in a reduction of 87 million pounds of carbon dioxide.

In the United States, commuting rates are even lower—around 0.6 percent—but rising. According to 2011 data compiled by the League of American Bicyclists, in Portland, Ore., roughly 6.3 percent of commuting trips are by bicycle, a fourfold rise since 1990. In Boston, cycling makes up only 1.7 percent of commuting travel.

Some American wannabe cyclists can take advantage of the Bicycle Commuter Tax Benefit, in which employers reimburse employees up to $20 per month for cycling to work. The American League of Bicyclists has signed up more than 500 companies—including Facebook, Target, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company—for its Bicycle Friendly Business program.

Whether companies are doing it to help create a more livable city or to get healthier employees, Neptune will take it. “We’re seeing an uptick in participation,” she said. “It’s a clear indication that businesses see this as an economically smart thing to do.”

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