Commuter Challenge Sees Drop in Members But Increase in Trips

Jerome McDonnell speaking at the Commuter Challenge Bash
WBEZ Worldview host Jerome McDonnell emceed the Commuter Challenge event.

The “Commuter Challenge” is an annual competition held in many cities, in which companies compete to get the most employees to bike commute during Bike to Work Week in June. It’s a good opportunity to start converting people who are “interested but concerned” about biking for transportation into regular bike commuters: Workplaces host events on how to do it, team leaders at each office answer any questions, and some companies even reward employees with cash. The competition is basically a fun way to raise awareness about how bicycling to work is a viable option for many people.

Brian Morrissey, who runs the program in Chicagoland for Active Transportation Alliance, invited me to the Commuter Challenge Bash two weeks ago, where the awards were presented by WBEZ Worldview host Jerome McDonnell. Morrissey said that there were fewer teams and riders and less total mileage this year compared to last year. However, those riders made more trips than ever, suggesting the workers who did bike to work this year stuck with it more than the participants last year.

Morrissey said this was to be expected, since the Commuter Challenge website asked participants to do a little more this year. Though the website got more complicated, it also collected better data:

Last year’s platform just asked users to input the total miles of their trip, whereas this year the distance was measured between two self-reported locations. The increase in trips shows that part of our program is working well. We obviously need to work on making the site more user friendly…

Morrissey said that Upshot Marketing had “the biggest upset win.” They ended Burke Group’s longstanding stranglehold on the top spot in their category, all the more impressive since, according to Morrissey, Burke Group “pays everyone who rides (year round) 75 cents per mile.” That wasn’t the only upset. Studio Gang Architects “crushed it” and set the bar high for future events. Their team hit 100 percent participation — everyone in the company biked for at least part of their commute all five days of Bike to Work Week. That is “incredible for any team with more than 25 employees,” Morrissey said. “Even [Active Trans] couldn’t do it.”

Studio Gang team leader John Castro said that the firm’s principal, Jeanne Gang, told the entire office at a meeting, “You have no excuse not to ride your bike to work.” Castro said some of his co-workers needed an extra push:

[Some staff] would get off at a CTA stop early and then we’d meet them with a bike and ride with them to the office. Not everyone is comfortable riding in the streets. There was playful resistance from people who don’t usually ride bikes. For some people, it’s faster for them to walk to the office. The push from Jeanne was helpful.

Studio Gang wins at the Commuter Challenge Bash
John Castro accepts the award on behalf of Studio Gang Architects. ## images##.

Another thing that’s different about this year’s Commuter Challenge is that it’s tracking trips to work all year long and, in an effort to reduce driving to work, offering prizes every month, through the Regional Transportation Authority’s Drive Less, Live More campaign. July’s rewards consist of a 10-ride ticket on the Chicago Water Taxi, two Divvy bike-share annual memberships, and four tickets to a White Sox game.

If your organization doesn’t yet compete in the Commuter Challenge, it can sign up next year. To see whether your organization competes, check out this year’s list.

  • Karen Kaz

    I’m not sure I’d take the year-to-year changes as all that accurate, as the Drive Less, Live More website was so terrible that I gave up trying to do anything. I ride my bike to work every day (19 miles round trip) and my parent organization did participate in the commuter challenge. I logged my trips last year, but this year it was too much hassle. (For example, IIRC you could enter start and end points, but not modify the route at all, and it used car directions not bike directions for calculating the trip. And that was after significant hassle even getting the account set up and confirmed in the first place.)

  • Brian said he was fully aware of many annoyances/issues with the software. He said…

    “But that was to be expected because the website was more complicated to use. On the other hand, we got more and more reliable metrics. Last year’s platform just asked users to input the total miles of their trip in, whereas this year the distance was measured between two self-reported locations.

    The increase in trips shows that part of our program is working well. We obviously need to work on making the site more user friendly, based on these metrics and the feedback we’ve so far received from participants.”

  • What company did you work for?

  • Karen Kaz

    If they want reliable metrics, then let users modify routes to reflect the routes they actually ride. The difference between the car-centric route their system mapped for me and the one I take was almost 2 miles – that’s 20 miles off over the course of a week. The previous system was much more accurate for me.

    Perhaps the margin of error evens out, in that for me the car-centric route is more miles than I actually ride, but for others they take safer bike routes that are less direct than what a car would do, but I just don’t think it was a very accurate system.

  • Karen Kaz

    I work for an affiliate of the National Association of Realtors.

  • Jin Nam

    Well. I signed up with folks at work and never logged in my trips which is a minimum of 4 trip per day every day. OOPS! This is true for the people I know who signed up for the challenge but didn’t log in their trips.

  • Trailz — I use (personally) daily, and had prior to the BTWW. During that week, 75% of our employees had issues registering with the site. Abysmal! RTA needs to hold someone’s feet to fire. The site was near useless for us.

  • Edgewater Roadie

    The software was a ridiculous and unnecessary hurdle in trying to encourage first-time commuters. I hope it is greatly simplified for next year.

  • Erik Swedlund

    For the purposes of calculating certain figures (like GHG saved), the car-centric route that’s being replaced with a bike ride is needed. However, that doesn’t accurately calculate bike miles ridden, could be done behind the scenes, and it is very frustrating to the user to see the little map suggesting they rode their bike on the Kennedy.

    As for me, I don’t want to input my exact route to the website–it’s already asking too much. I want the trip input to be faster and easier, and that website is not helping any.

  • Anonymous

    Our company had similar problems. I think we had 3 people who tried on multiple occasions to register and finally gave up. I know there were also many days where people tried to enter their rides only to have the site not respond. I tried to help some find times when the site was up.

    I mentioned the problems in both my feedback and at the rest stop, as well as at the Bike to Work rally. It was like the RTA was unprepared for the web traffic.

    Oh, and their “two end points” thing COMPLETELY sucked. I couldn’t get it to let me ride Wilson from Damen to Rockwell! It kept pulling my route off to side streets, many of which were one way the wrong way. I finally gave up and only used endpoints, so the distances of my ride were inaccurate.

    BTW, complication had nothing to do with the site. It was buggy, slow, and felt like it was a site left in development mode that was limping along.

  • Megan B

    Congrats to the winners!

    Studio Gang is an inspiration to other companies – teamwork and positive encouragement can make the difference. I went to their Website, and even though their staff are mostly younger and seem typically fit, getting 100% participation is quite a feat.

    I would love if my company did something like Burke Group and paid me to bike. Wishful thinking.


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