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September 7, 2010, Volume 57, No. 02

Bike-Commuting Benefit

I read with interest the update on the plans for Shoemaker Green in front of the Palestra, which will turn a “grey field” into a pilot project for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (Almanac, July 13, 2010). Penn apparently sees itself as leading the way in “green” campus development. Inaugurating the Green Campus Partnership, President Gutmann proclaimed: “Through its research, teaching, and operational practices, Penn is dedicated to promoting a sustainable culture and implementing environmentally-conscious policies.”

Ironically, the same July 13 issue of the Almanac included a Business Services Update on parking benefits for faculty and staff.  The University goes to great lengths to provide discounted parking (paid for on a pre-tax basis) for its employees, thereby effectively subsidizing their car commutes.  Members of the Penn community may be surprised to learn that more than a year and a half ago, Congress passed a law to encourage bicycle commuting.  The Bicycle Commuter Act provides a tax benefit to employers who reimburse employees for expenses related to their cycling commutes.  The law’s $20 per month limit compares rather feebly with the comparable figures for transit benefits ($115) and parking benefits ($210).  Still, it is better than nothing, and a step in the right direction.
 
Unfortunately, on our “green campus,” the bike-commuting benefit is not available.  Why?  Human Resources says “the University does not have the required systems in place to handle the required administration.”  I was told by the University’s Sustainability Office that Business Services could not find an affordable vendor to administer the benefit.  These sound like bureaucratic excuses for inaction—particularly in light of the well-established transit and parking benefits—rather than genuine obstacles to reaching a desired goal.  Penn already generously subsidizes those who drive to work, thereby contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, traffic, and the health effects of sedentary lifestyles.  But somehow it can’t find the “required systems” to contribute even a paltry sum to those who are trying to make a positive change by bicycling to work.

Penn pays an awful lot of lip service to environmental awareness, sustainability, and community health.  When it comes time to back up those words with action, however—even on a very small scale—the lofty ideals sometimes fade into unconvincing excuses. Surely we can do better than this.  Penn should be a leader on this front.  In the meantime, you’ll forgive me if I don’t join in the righteous green wave of self-congratulation.


 —David Barnes
Associate Professor,
History and Sociology of Science, School of Arts and Science

Response


Commitment to Sustainability

The 2009 IRS tax law does provide the option of offering a $20/month reimbursement for anyone who bikes to work. While the law has been implemented in some small- to medium-sized companies (and our research shows that most of the businesses currently offering this benefit have less than 5,000 employees) it is much more difficult and costly to implement with organizations as large and diverse as Penn.

However, given the University’s strong commitment to sustainable transportation, we are exploring options that may enable us to provide this benefit or other incentives to our employees at some future date. Additionally, while we are unable at this time to offer this particular benefit, the University has implemented a number of initiatives that make biking both safer and more convenient in and around Penn’s campus. These include adding bike parking, increasing security around bike corrals, providing a system to register your bike with the Penn Police, and working with the City to improve bike lanes in the streets around Penn’s campus.

These initiatives are part of an overall effort to make transportation to, from and around campus more sustainable. Penn currently invests in several valuable services such as discounted rates on public transportation for faculty, students and staff, the LUCY (Loop Around University City) service and Penn Transit’s bus, shuttle and Para Transit Services. The University directly finances each of these in whole or in part—and all are offered at no charge to members of the Penn Community.

We have also purchased new vehicles for our transit fleet that are equipped to run on cleaner fuels such as biodiesel and propane, and through PhillyCarShare and Zip Car we provide discounted car sharing rates for faculty, staff and students.  And, even though our goal is to reduce vehicle traffic on campus, we recognize for many individuals that using a car is their only viable option. For those who continue to drive, this fall, Parking Services will be introducing special benefits to all patrons who drive low emissions vehicles.

September marks the one year anniversary of the launch of Penn’s Climate Action Plan. We have made significant progress toward reducing our carbon emissions, but know that there is still much more to be done. As we continue to explore ways to make transportation more sustainable at Penn, we invite the community to provide feedback and suggestions.

—Marie Witt,
Vice President,
Division of Business Services


Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday’s issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/about/guidelin.html#op for the Speaking Out Guidelines.  —Ed.

 

 


Almanac - September 7, 2010, Volume 57, No. 02