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air district’s critical miss

By enelson
Friday, December 21st, 2007 at 7:52 pm in Bicycling, Environment.


Speaking for those of us who toil away in the real world, where employers don’t much care how you get to work as long as you get there on time, it was with no small amount of glee that I discovered the memo from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Regular commenter Murphstahoe provided the following link:

It provides a copy of a human resources memo to the employees of the air district, which is in the business of promoting alternatives to the automobile in the name of clean air, to wit:

It has come to the attention of the human resources office that some employees may be riding their bicycles in the course of their work duties. While biking to work is an option that the district supports, employees are not to ride their bikes in the course of their work duties.

The potential for serious injury is much greater riding a bicycle than driving a car in the event of an accident. Until further notice, employees are not to ride their bikes in the course of their work duties.

I could comment here, but nothing I could come up would match one of the comments on the blog:

“By the grace of God, tell me this was a prank. A sick joke perhaps? A late April Fool’s joke?”

I had similar thoughts, especially considering that this very morning I was on my bike, staring down tractor-trailer rigs on the West Grand Avenue viaduct over the Port of Oakland rail yard on my way to the Caltrans Bay Bridge public information office.

Even Caltrans, widely regarded as more of a highway department than anything else, has a fleet of “CT” logo bikes upon which the engineers tool about the bridge project campus.

Knowing there must be a logical explanation, I called Karen Schkolnick, spokeswoman for the air district.

Basically, it boils down to a lack of insurance for someone getting hit on a bike in the course of their air district duties.

“Our office is committed to green practices and we are a green-certified business,” she explained, but I knew all that stuff.

I knew the district lavishes its employees with free BART tickets, generous Commuter Check subsidies (did I mention that I’ve lost mine?) and a fleet of off-road Segways with the boss mudder tires.

OK, so I made up the last bit, but Schkolnick said they have hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and a bunch of other alt-fuel vehicles for their inspectors to run around saving the world in.

“We have an insurance policy for when employees drive vehicles at work, but we don’t have one for employees who ride bicycles at work,” she told me, promising that within a month or so, such a policy would be in place.

Part of the problem is that the air district office sits between two freeways in San Francisco, which can be a dodgy place to pedal around in.

“We’re not in Santa Cruz, we’re not in Berkeley,” she said.

I must say that there are some scary places to bike in Berkeley, too.

As part of the more bike-friendly effort, the district is retaining a company that will maintain a fleet of company bikes for the district, so proper bike maintenance is assured, she added.

The funniest part of this was that I called Robert Raburn, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and he was neither outraged nor terribly surprised. As a journalist, I really hate it when people aren’t outraged or surprised.

Turns out, the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition, which runs Bike-to-Work Day in the spring for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, recently had to secure a $20,000 insurance policy for its Team Bike Challenge. The Challenge pits teams from various companies and other entities against each other to see how many days their members bike to work.

“To have an agency like that come up with a policy that’s the antithesis of what the district should be doing is ludicrous,” Raburn said. “It’s disturbing and certainly is costly and it adds a real hurdle to the promotion and the utility of bicycling.”

He wasn’t just talking about the air district. His concern is that putting an extra insurance requirement on employers could spawn similar policies throughout the working world.

“Let’s look under the carpet here,” Raburn urged. “Is somebody’s relative in the insurance business?”

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13 Responses to “air district’s critical miss”

  1. Guy Span Says:

    You beat me to it, Erik. But one wonders why insurance is needed. According to the League of Illinois Bicyclists, who surveyed the various state codes and found:

    “Six states — AZ, CA, IA, IL, IN, MI, NY — give bicycles the rights and responsibilities (or rights and obligations) of vehicles, but exclude bicycles as vehicles in the code.”

    Okay, if us bicyclists aren’t vehicles, what are we? The logical presumption would be pedestrians. Oddly enough, ordinary Bay Area pedestrians are killed at five times a higher rate than bicyclists. However pedestrians greatly outnumber bicyclists.

    As a pedestrian and a bike rider, I am not charged any cost by my insurance company for this activity, and it is juicily ludicrous that an air quality agency would prohibit such activity.

    And lord knows, I would not want a clunky and ill-maintained bicycle from an agency, where many people ride it and no one fixes it. Your own bike you know intimately. You adjust the brakes, the derailer and the seat to your specifications. You select the frame size and weight, cotterless cranks, toe clips and lubricate the damned thing. You know exactly how far you can lay it over in an emergency situation and how quickly you can make an emergency stop.

    On someone else’s bike, the learning curve might come with injuries. All in all, this is the stupidest memo since VTA put out an RFP specifying cakes for its company parties. The specs went on for some 40 hilarious pages, defining icing, fillings, layers and presentation. They had no bidders.

    News would not be any fun without these guys to help us…

    I’d be interested in the insurance rules in CA regarding bikes…

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Guy, I’m not an underwriter, but I don’t think this is a vehicle insurance issue, per se. Companies (or government agencies) are liable for bad things that happen to their employees when they’re doing the company’s bidding. If their liability insurance people decide that biking or in-line skating to meetings or spare-the-air picnics is unduly dangerous, they can raise a red flag and exclude those types of on-the-job activities. This is just my guess, but I think that the company fleet of bikes is one way of minimizing organizational liability, i.e., the air district is taking responsibility for bike safety.

  3. Doug Faunt Says:

    Is this their office on Ellis? Which two freeways?
    “air district office sits between two freeways in San Francisco”?
    If so, then it’s all of a block and a half from one of the numbered bike routes in SF.

    I wonder if their rules disallow motorcycle travel when working?

    Having their own fleet of bicycles seems counterproductive to me, also. Unless they come with airbags.

  4. david vartanoff Says:

    just another nail in the coffin of public agencies, One would expect such rank stupidity from the military, or junior high school…

  5. Ron Bishop Says:

    I would personally feel and be safer on my own bicycle. I maintain the vehicle, have a luggage rack, fenders, and lights. Adapting to a bicyle that is not mine, not my frame size, not the same gearing or braking capcity would in fact icrease my risk.
    I can understand and support that a company be ecouraged to maintain a stable of bicycles for those that have a short commute to a meeting and do not have a bike of their own at the facility. This is a great opportunity to provide that option to employees. Companies could go the extra step and provide a class from the local League of American Bicyclist, League Certified Bicycle Safety Instructor [LCI] for employees to review the rules of the road and basic bicycle safety. That is certainly more than is normally done for their motoring employees.
    All in all, I see no reson for imposing insurance on an agency. That is just another thinly veiled attempt to keep our populace tethered to the motor vehicle. After all if you are in the steel cage, it will be those on the outside suffering the risk from the danger motorist represent with speeding, reckless driving and inattentiveness.
    Lets let those bicyclist that already commute use their own bikes and lets encourage companies to maintain bikes and training for the other employees.

  6. A former business manager Says:

    This is a WC (Workmen’s Compensation) and liability insurance issue. Employers are by law liable for any injuries suffered by their employees while on the job. The underwriters at the agency’s WC carrier may have their policy to specifically exclude employees cycling on the job.

    Employers are also liable for any injuries caused by their employees while on the job. An example would be if an employee riding a bicycle in the course of going to a meeting accidentally hits and knocks down a pedestrian, the agency would be liable to the injured party.

    Government agencies are deep pocket targets. Insurance companies try to interpret their policies to exclude any responsibilities not explicitly included in their policies. The agency could be left either without coverage or be simultaneously involved in lawsuits against the insurer and defending a lawsuit by the injured.

    So, it isn’t just silliness. It is just good business practice to keep employees from using bicycles on the job until the insurance coverage is known to be fixed.

  7. Capricious Commuter Says:

    FBM, welcome to the fray, and thanks for your keen insight into the realm of workplace liability. The thing that is hard for the rest of us to grasp is that with all the other ways we have to get to a meeting, why are bikes a special case?

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Doug, I shouldn’t have parroted the “between two freeways” thing. I’m not sure what she meant by that. Maybe she meant “between” in the same sense that San Francisco is between Venus and Mars.

  9. A former business manager Says:


    you have to understand the logic of insurance companies. While they are eager to sell insurance coverage, exactly what that coverage entails is a matter of very fine print, state regulations on standard policy forms and legal precedents.

    Since bicycling on the job is not a common activity, coverage under normal insurance policies may be unclear.

    Once presented with a claim, insurance companies by nature try to see if that claim can be excluded from coverage. Although insurance companies are required to interpret coverages in favor of the insured, the actual practice varies.

    Employee use of personal and company vehicles is such common practice that it is in most commercial general liability (GL) and motor vehicle insurance. (Unless of course explicitly excluded or limited.) So too with workmen’s compensation.

    An employer, especially a politically sensitive, very deep pockets one, must be sure that they are covered before allowing their employees to cycle on the job.

    Think of the outcry and criticism of the agency if there is an uninsured accident. The agency would be tarred and feathered for being stupid and silly.

  10. murphstahoe Says:

    FBM denotes the issue of if the cyclist injures someone else – making this problem even more ludicrous. A person driving a car is *far* more likely to cause an injury to a 3rd person than someone on a bike… not to mention damage to the car itself can very easily be more than the total cost of a brand new bike.

  11. Capricious Commuter Says:

    M, you’re right about bike vs car damage, on one level, but any influence on traffic, be it an 18-wheeler or a skateboard, can cause collisions with objects or third vehicles. Consider the driver who swerves to avoid a bike and hits a utility pole. In such situations, the lawyers are still going to go after the deepest pockets, i.e., the party that was on the job for an agency or corporation.

  12. Brian T Says:

    “Turns out, the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition, which
    runs Bike-to-Work Day in the fall for the
    Metropolitan Transportation Commission…”

    Bike-to-Work Day actually happens in May.

  13. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Egad. Thanks, Brian, for pointing that out. I’ve just fixed it.

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