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Yale doesn’t offer bike commuter benefit as Harvard and MIT do

Harvard does it. MIT does it. Down in the DC area, American and George Mason universities do it.

These schools offer their employees the federally authorized Bicycle Commuter Benefit: up to $20 a month in reimbursement for bike-commuting expenses.

At Yale, where the university underwrites 35 percent of the cost of employee parking (and employees subtract their share of parking fees from their taxable income), the bike commuter benefit is not available.

“We have considered providing the bicycle commuter benefit at Yale for some time,” Holly Parker, the university’s director of sustainable transportation systems, says by e-mail. In 2012, Parker wrote a “Plan for Sustainable Transportation at Yale” that calls for implementing the benefit. But, she notes, “funds have not been identified for this project.”

Disclosure: I have a direct financial stake here. I am one of the 11 percent of Yale employees, graduate students, and postdocs who commute by bicycle. (Maybe I should get a bumper sticker that says: “We are the 11 percent.” Except my bike doesn’t have a bumper.)

How many funds would Yale need to identify for the bike commuter benefit?

Probably in the low five figures.

Harvard—with 20,000 benefits-eligible employees, compared to Yale’s roughly 12,500—spent about $36,000 in reimbursements for 2013, the first year it offered the benefit. That was for 241 participants, who averaged just under $150 apiece in qualified expenses, says Ben Hammer, program coordinator for the university’s Commuter Choice program. (Qualified expenses include bicycle purchase, maintenance, repair, and storage. Safety equipment—helmets, lights—and commuter gear like racks and panniers are “iffy” under the IRS rules, Hammer says. Spandex doesn’t qualify.)

Harvard’s enrollment was more than triple what Hammer anticipated, and he expects it will grow as the word gets out. But he’s not worried about busting the budget: “We’d love for every employee to bike to work. It’s a really low-cost, high-benefit program.”

Not that the bicycle benefit is necessarily persuading Harvard employees to get out of their cars or off the T. Under the federal law, you can’t combine it with employee benefits for transit or parking—which are worth a lot more than $20 a month.

“It’s really an employee satisfaction program,” says Larry Brutti, an operations manager who oversees commuter programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It doesn’t cost very much, but people like to get a little bit of money. I see them out there in the winter, freezing” on their bicycles.

At MIT, participation has roughly tripled since the program began—but it’s still only 150 employees, and it costs “probably less than $20,000 a year,” Brutti says.

“One program does not make it” alone, Brutti says: “It’s the whole toolbag of programs working together that help alleviate the parking crunch.”

American University, where about 90 to 100 employees participate, provides a different rationale.

“We have not studied the impact on other forms of commuting or calculated” a return on investment, Ann Joiner, senior director of employee benefits, says by e-mail. “We offer the benefit in keeping with our sustainability initiative.”

At Yale, sustainable transportation director Parker is happy that bicycle commuting among faculty, staff, and graduate students has jumped from 5 percent in 2007 to 11 percent today.

She also notes that “Yale has been part of the [New Haven] bicycle movement through a large campaign to increase the number & quality of bike racks on campus (as well as mapping their locations), our Y-Bike program (in which 40 bicycles were distributed to Yale departments and Yale staff pedaled over 8,000 miles on them) and our now 1-year old Zagster bikeshare program—with 50 bikes available on campus at 10 locations. We now have 600 members and since the program’s inception, have had an average of 18 rentals per day.”

While the bicycle commuter benefit wouldn’t immediately prompt Yale employees to stop driving to work, “its provision is an important first step toward culture change,” Parker says. Asked if she sees that culture change happening at Yale, she replies: “Yes!”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under bicycles, commuting

1 comment

  • David Backeberg
    David Backeberg, 12:26pm July 23 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I'm a Yale employee who would probably take advantage of the $20 fringe benefit if it were offered at Yale. When I worked at MIT, I used MIT's transit pass program, which would make me ineligible for the bike benefit. That's a fair trade, because at least in Boston, the subway system is very good, and MIT and Harvard (at least used to) pay half the cost.

    As a year-round bike rider, I will say that the best bike benefit an employer can offer is a safe, secure, ideally indoor location to store a bike, along with availability for showers. I can't speak for every Yale employee, but in my building we do have secure, indoor bike parking and showers. I'd like the money too, but having the acknowledgement that biking is important by providing a place to park analogous to what is given to automobile drivers (secure card-access parking garages built at a cost of $20k per parking spot) goes a long way toward making biking to work pleasant in New Haven.

    Also, the tax code that governs the bike benefit was really badly written. It's basically, a poorly-implemented step-sibling of the benefits that car commuters and transit commuters get. If Congress could fix the tax code, more employers could more easily grant this to their employees. Instead, the bike rebate tax code is called a 'fringe benefit', which I'm told by HR people makes it more difficult to administer.

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