The US Environmental Protection Agency plans to close its only state-of-the-art employee bike room in Washington this July, as it consolidates office space. About 100 employees are not sure whether they will continue to bike to work.

The bike room. Photos by the author.

EPA’s main headquarters are at Federal Triangle, but almost 500 employees work at 1310 L Street for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions.  When the “air office” moved there in 2004, employees asked EPA management to create a bike room in the basement parking garage, and management readily agreed to do so.

"This is the best employee bike room I have ever seen,”  says Michael Jackson, the Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Affairs for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

So when the weather is nice, about 15% of the staff bike to work.  Roughly 30% of the people who work in that building occasionally bike to work.

EPA’s L Street bike room is really convenient

To get to the bike room, employees ride through an open garage door at 1310 L Street. The guards there know every face that passes through those doors. After hours, an electronic pass opens the doors.

Cars use the same entrance, but that is not a problem. Only 30–40 of the building’s 150 spaces are used.  This is EPA!

As with a typical parking garage, cyclists ride down a ramp and through the garage for about 250 feet. They then come to a small hallway where a key fob opens a door. The bike room has wall hooks and other vertical racks for about 50 bikes in a 26 x 20 foot room, whose lighting is as good as the offices.

In the photo above, to the right of the yellow towel, is a door that leads to the men’s locker room, shown below.  The men and women’s locker rooms each have long wood benches, lighting as good as the offices, and bathrooms with 4 showers, 4 toilets, and 2 sinks.

The men’s locker room.

I sometimes park a bike in that room but almost never take a shower, because my typical morning commute is mostly by Metrorail.

EPA’s bike room was a decade ahead of its time

With 15% of employees biking to work during nice weather, the year-round bicycle mode share is clearly more than 6%.  That’s probably at least four times the typical mode share for a large office.

For example, EPA’s William Jefferson Clinton buildings at Federal Triangle have about 10 times as many employees but only twice as many cyclists as its L Street building.  And while 3% of DC residents typically bike to work, the mode share for people who work in DC is only 1.5%, according to the Census Bureau.

EPA management was a decade ahead of its time.  The DC Zoning Commission has proposed regulations for new buildings that would require employee parking facilities almost as good as what EPA put into an existing building in 2004. 

"The bike parking rules in the zoning update are needed so that more employers will encourage biking the way EPA has at the L Street building,” says Shane Farthing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.  “A 10% mode share is unusually good. While it may seem simple, studies in the greater Washington area have shown that availability of high quality bike parking facilities and showers is a major factor determining whether people will bike to work.”

This table compares EPA’s L Street bike room, the one at the Clinton buildings at Federal Triangle, and what DC zoning would require for new or substantially renovated buildings. EPA provides 8 showers and 72 lockers, while the regulations would require 6 showers and only 33 lockers.  The guidelines for LEED certification only require 4 showers and have no specific requirement for lockers.

EPA bike room comparison to zoning and LEED
1310 L StreetClinton buildings
Employees4504,000
Floor area (square feet)136,0001,900,000
Bike parking spaces
LEED23200
Proposed zoning55300
Existing50126
Showers
LEED428
Proposed zoning618
Existing84
Lockers
Proposed zoning33180
Existing7260
Distance to building entrance (feet)
LEED100100
Existing50200–1,200
Is bike parking in the same building?
Proposed zoningRequiredRequired
ExistingYesMostly no
See here for sources.

Did the superior facilities cause the unusually high mode share for bikes, or did they “merely” enhance the quality of life for people who would have biked to work anyway?  Maybe a little bit of both.

The Treasury Building has bike facilities comparable to the L Street bike room.  The number of people who work at that large building is several times the number who work at L Street, but only twice as many people bike to work. Facilities alone are not enough to achieve a 10–15% mode share during nice weather.

On the other hand, better facilities might explain some of the variation among EPA offices.  At the Clinton buildings at Federal Triangle, the bike room is less appealing and less convenient. And less than 5% of the staff bike to work on a good day. 

What will happen when L Street closes?

The EPA is now moving its air office to Federal Triangle and giving up its space on L Street. This may provide a useful test of how much attractive bike rooms matter. Will some of the staff stop biking to work?  Of course, the staff would rather see a better bike room at Federal Triangle than be part of an experiment. 

EPA management suggests that the L Street employees may be expecting too much.  EPA plans to add lockers and bike racks sufficient to accommodate the new arrivals.  “Management has determined that the additional bike racks and lockers will be sufficient,” according to an EPA negotiator.

And putting first-class bike facilities in an old government building is not easy.  These buildings don’t have underground parking garages with ample space for creating a bike room.  Their wide hallways might seem ideal for wheeling a bike to a first floor bike room, but GSA historical preservation rules prohibit people from wheeling bicycles through most hallways.

Nevertheless, the Department of the Treasury put modern bike rooms in the third oldest federal building (after the Capitol and White House), so it seems likely that EPA can do so in its historic buildings as well. Still, it would cost money. Are better bike rooms more important than whatever EPA could otherwise buy with the funds?

What kind of bike facilities are at your workplace?

Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George’s County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George’s on the state of Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified.