Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Commute Options was known for hosting a spring Commute Challenge. We were disappointed that pandemic restrictions derailed this fun way to change up your commute, but we decided to view it as an opportunity to try something new!
In lieu of hosting a Commute Challenge, Commute Options launched a Commute Coaching outreach program. Many workers saw a silver lining during the pandemic in reduced or eliminated commute time, thanks to working from home or transitioning to a hybrid work week. With car traffic down, bicycling rates went up, a trend we view as another positive because we know bicycling is a safe and healthy way to commute, run errands, and have fun. We also know that riders may feel nervous about navigating Memphis by bicycle. Commute Options to the rescue! Our Commute Coaching Program pairs participants with their own one-on-one coach to develop safe and efficient routes wherever they want to go. We have “commute” in the name but we are also promoting commute practice by bicycling to run errands, eat out, or enjoy family time, as well as get to work and school.
How we built and promoted the program
To start, we recruited fifteen volunteers to act as Commute Coaches, and hosted two virtual meetings to discuss program goals. All coaches are experienced road bicyclists who are passionate about this mode of travel. The Commute Coaches are encouraging and enthusiastic when talking about bike routes. They have lots of tips and tricks to get new riders feeling safe on the road. And they can share ideas on a wide range of topics such as traffic considerations and what to wear! Each coach helped us promote the program, initially, by submitting a bio and headshot for us to use on our social media. One joined our Program Manager on Live at 9, a local morning show highlighting community events. Our program manager also appeared on KWAM’s online radio show with Earl Fisher.
The Commute Coaching program is focused on normalizing the bicycle as a viable transportation option for work and school, not just exercise and fun. For that reason, we decided early in the development process to be intentional about how our coaches appear to new road bicyclists. It is extremely important to us that our Commute Coaches not wear spandex on any bicycle rides with program participants. Spandex is fine for long, fast weekend warrior rides. But since we are trying to normalize the bicycle as a mode for traveling to work, wearing regular, every day clothes demonstrates an inviting atmosphere and shows that riding for transportation does not require specialized gear.
As our coaches meet each new participant, we discuss the many barriers that prevent more Memphians from choosing a bicycle commute. We are actively working on an ongoing basis to break those barriers down with welcoming attitudes, short commutes, and sensitivity to any concerns that may arise. For example, a working mother may need a route to get to work after dropping children at school. Office staff may be worried about looking professional on the job after traveling by bicycle. And people whose driving commute includes Poplar or Union may not know the low stress streets our neighborhoods offer to a bicycle commuter. Commute Coaches are trained to address these issues and more.
Why we built the program
We know it can be scary to start riding a bicycle in the street, especially for those shifting to a bike from a car. One of our first pieces of advice is to rethink your regular routes. We’re not asking you to ride on Poplar and Union. A bike offers so many other options. The beauty of Memphis is that the city streets are laid out on a grid. Bicyclists can enjoy tree-lined, low-stress neighborhood streets, sometimes just a block or two away from their regular route. These low stress routes offer pleasant scenery, quieter surroundings, and some shade, making for a much more pleasant choice for bicycle travel.
Who has participated
In our program, we’ve had University of Memphis professors, hospitality workers, and non-profit professionals. However, even though our postings about Commute Coaching get great engagement on our social media accounts, we don’t have many new participants sign up from Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. We chalk it up to how scary and hard it is to change an ingrained behavior like how you travel to work. But that’s okay! We know that people trust their friends. So, we’re not surprised when our new Commute Coaching participants are a friend of a friend. It just reminds us that the more people we can get coached, the more we can reach!
You know, writing this to you feels like writing to a friend. So, would you like to sign up for Commute Coaching now?
Sylvia Crum joined Innovate Memphis in 2019 as the Commute Options Program Manager. This work allows her to encourage local businesses, employees, and students to shift from drive-alone commutes to transit, walking, carpooling, and bicycling.