Greater Greater Washington

EPA will close its best bike room

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. 

Comments

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World Bank Group has great lockers and showers in several of the downtown buildings. We don't have a specific bike room to store bikes, but there is plenty of bike parking with great racks in the basement garages. Security at the bank is so good I rarely lock my bike in the garages and I've been riding year round for close to 15 years.

by turtleshell on May 14, 2014 2:15 pm • linkreport

I am very lucky. My building has a gym in the basement available to all tenants, and I am able to use the showers. The underground parking garage has plenty of bike rack space for parking. (The government agency I work for is in the building, but does not own it).

by engrish_major on May 14, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

"GSA historical preservation rules prohibit people from wheeling bicycles through most hallways."

Wait, what?!?

by ChrisB on May 14, 2014 2:31 pm • linkreport

It should be a requirement for new buildings to have showers and bike facilities! I would bike a lot more if i could just shower once i got to work!I wonder if this could be a private business, park your bike shower and have a coffee and the news paper for you on your way out on the way to your job

by corey on May 14, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

^this

by dc denizen on May 14, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

@ChrisB
I don't doubt that - other buildings I've worked in have had different rules about bikes in hallways/elevators/etc., though I don't know anything about specific GSA mandates. There was a guard in one government building I used to work in who would not let me walk through the lobby in my cycling shoes due to the metal cleat on the bottom.

by engrish_major on May 14, 2014 2:36 pm • linkreport

Sorry, "^this" refers to @ChrisB on the question of why in the world GSA historical preservation prohibits people from wheeling bicycles through most hallways.

I bike to work everyday regardless of weather and I don't have indoor parking nor showering facilities. I just make due. But those kind of facilities would be awesome if they were available. A private company (maybe a gym) could start a cheaper membership just for biking commuters - bike storage, lockers, showers, and a cup of coffee :-)

by dc denizen on May 14, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

A requirement for most large buildings to have a shower is in the proposed zoning regs update. Every building is already required to have secure bike parking.

by David C on May 14, 2014 2:50 pm • linkreport

I've heard of some gyms offering "shower memberships." Basically you get to use the showers and lockers, but not the fitness equipment. No idea if this exists in DC, but I know it exists elsewhere. Forget where I read about it.

by Gerald F on May 14, 2014 3:10 pm • linkreport

I bike to work over 90% of the time. My building has large bike racks in the garage which I find plenty secure, and two showers per locker room in a relatively small office building. Don't generally have to shower since it's only a 2 mile trip, but I'm glad to have the facility available! I might utilize the shower room more in the dead heat of summertime, though I prefer just showering at home and changing into work clothes so I don't have to carry around a towel and such (no place to keep stuff overnight except my desk drawers - lockers are for daytime use only).

by Ampersand on May 14, 2014 3:17 pm • linkreport

Showers are more important than a "nice" bike room. I bike to work and we just have bike racks in the garage. The garage is secure so the bikes are secure. More important is that we have access to a gym with showers. If I didn't have that, I wouldn't ride.

by RDHD on May 14, 2014 3:21 pm • linkreport

Everyone has their own personal threshold for how sweaty they are willing to get commuting to work. On really hot and humid days I choose not to bike. But for the "borderline" days here's what I do:

1) Pedal slower than normal. Costs me about two minutes of commuting time.

2) Bring a fresh under-shirt. The under-shirt is what gets the most sweaty. The outer shirt not as much. Of course, you could always bring an entire change of clothes, but I like to minimize this effort.

3) Deodorant

4) Find a reasonable place to change your shirt. Could be a bathroom stall; hey, whatever is available.

5) Paper towel, water and (optionally, face wash) to wipe my face clean.

Heck, people who take the bus or metro end up at work all sweaty, so who cares if you're a little sweaty as well.

If you're uber concerned that you might smell bad, ask a close friend if you smell or not. Doesn't have to be a coworker.

by Gerald F on May 14, 2014 3:24 pm • linkreport

The shower-only gym membership is kind of a myth. Like Big Foot everyone has heard of it, no one has actually seen it.

by David C on May 14, 2014 3:30 pm • linkreport

Would it better for EPA to harvest the remains and try to move them to the new facility or to hope that the new tenant uses the facility left behind? Either way, what a shame for EPA of all agencies to be closing such a great facility.

by In the Burbs on May 14, 2014 3:40 pm • linkreport

Many years ago I worked at the IRS building at 1111 Constitution Avenue. For a time, they permitted bikes into the basement to park but stopped doing that at some point. There is actually a bike room that is located outside the building at a hidden location for IRS employees.

One cold winter day I rode to work and was showering on the 5th floor, which was the only floor with 2 showers. It was also the same floor where the IRS Commissioner's office was. As luck would have it, while emerging from the shower, in walks the Commissioner, who comments that it was a mighty cold day to be bike riding. This was many years before the Seinfeld "shrinkage" episode. We had a nice conversation after that.

Just a story...

by fongfong on May 14, 2014 4:16 pm • linkreport

I can't help it but I am a high sweater. When I bike commute, I have to take a shower even on reasonably cool days. It even gets to the point that I have to turn the water cold to get my body temperature down otherwise I start sweating again after I dress. I even bring in extra undershirts when I take Metro on hot days, because I sweat like gross amounts. Luckily my wife and I started dating because of shared interests in mountain biking, so she was used to my sweat levels.

My work has a gym with showers, plus a biker/jogger room with showers. Two bike parking areas in very secure garages with armed security, etc.

by Pete on May 14, 2014 4:22 pm • linkreport

@David C

Bigfoot exists! Our office gym has a shower-only membership - and it's free. The gym membership fee is waived for USDOT employees who take the Bike Commuter Benefit and they are given access to the showers until 11am. It makes that "lucrative" $20/month "benefit" a little more valuable since I don't have to pay the gym membership.

by KG on May 14, 2014 4:29 pm • linkreport

Michael Jackson pointed me to the
Santa Monica Bicycle Center as an example of what to do where it is infeasible for some employers to provide good bike facilities.

by Jim Titus on May 14, 2014 4:33 pm • linkreport

KG, can anyone join the "office gym" or is it for USDOT employees only? I was talking specifically about for-profit gyms.

by David C on May 14, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

fongfong- I used the "Commissioner's Shower" many years ago when I biked to work and because of a newspaper story on me doing so women at IRS demanded and got a shower for women (in the basement I think).

by Tom Coumaris on May 14, 2014 8:57 pm • linkreport

I use the EPA locker room in the WJCS building. We're going to need a bigger locker room.

by Redline SOS on May 15, 2014 9:25 am • linkreport

The newly-reopened Gaithersburg and Olney libraries both have employee showers, because Montgomery County decided to go for the "gold" LEED green building standard in new construction. The shower is nice but I need to leave a lot of time for rinsing off and getting dressed because a) it's an extremely low-flow shower head and b) there's not a lot of air flow in the restroom. I'm also a heavy sweater who suffers from hot flashes after exercise, so cooling down on hot days is something of a chore.

I'm thinking of bringing in a small fan to help with the air flow, but I have been getting some static from my boss about using the shower for its intended purpose. She doesn't want me to leave any towels on the racks because "it's not fair to the other employees who might want to use them." Really? Last I checked, I'm the only staff member who bikes--possibly the only one in the entire county library system who regularly rides. She has also griped about "who's going to clean" the shower. So I build in even more time to mop up and leave the bathroom absolutely immaculate because this lady does my annual evaluation, and I don't want her to have any non-work-related negative vibes mucking up her view of my job performance. Next I expect she is going to criticize me for "monopolizing" the staff restroom (even though there is another right next to it) due to my having to be in there so long to cool down, clean, etc.

The whole thing makes me feel unsupported, like she is tacitly trying to dissuade me from biking. Why can't I just drive to work and join a gym for exercise (like she does)? She just doesn't seem to get it.

by Librarian-on-Wheels on May 15, 2014 9:50 am • linkreport

Regarding shower-only gym memberships: a commenter on the Commute Challenge site suggests checking with nearby hotels that have fitness rooms; the commenter got a shower-only membership at a Marriott for $100/yr.

Bonus tip: a microfiber towel dries you off as well or better than a cotton towel, and it dries out MUCH more quickly than a cotton towel.

by John Henry Holliday on May 15, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport

I biked to work at the World Bank for over 25 years. Over that time the number of bike racks and the shower facilities grew and were the key factor in making bike commuting feasible. Without shower facilities, particularly in the summer, a 9 mile bike commute would not have been possible. A locker to store clothes and a wet towel are also very useful. Apart from the sheer pleasure of bike commuting, the health benefits were tremendous. Employers should actively encourage bike commuting. While the WB charged gym membership for the use of showers and lockers, there is a good case for offering reduced fees for such use, at least to equal any implicit subsidy give to drivers who use the garage.

by cjw on May 15, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

@all. Thanks for the other individual stories

@Librarian on Wheels: There are alot of advocates in MoCo who can probably help push from the top, down. Feel free to send me an email off-line. But one approach that works for larger offices, and might work with the library system, is for each facility to have a bike-facility coordinator. That bike-room coordinator basically makes the rules, unless someone gets them over-ruled, which never happens since the rules are vetted with other users and they make sense. So I would suggest you push the Library system to name bike-facility coordinators, which in your case, would probably be you.

Failing that, I would push the HQ to issue bike-facility rules which would hopefully be sensible. if they are not sensible, then I can assure you that there would be some countywide advocacy to make them reasonable, because cyclists as a group would not let unreasonable rules by a county agency stand.

by JimT on May 16, 2014 10:22 am • linkreport

@Librarian-on-Wheels

Sounds like you need a Union!

by Sweaty Cyclist on May 27, 2014 10:26 am • linkreport

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