September 25, 2012
By Michael Welles Shapiro
Bicycles aren't a new way for workers to navigate Newport News Shipbuilding's sprawling riverfront shipyard. Bikes have been around the yard at least since the 1930s, based on photographs dating to that period.
But the two-wheelers have sped ahead in recent decades in terms of their abundance and their popularity among employees and managers alike.
The shipyard had 2,245 bicycles in 1987, according to a Daily Press article. Today there are more than 6,000.
The number of shipyard employees has fallen by more than 5,000 during the same time period. That means there's a bike for every three and a half employees today, compared to fewer than one for every 10 employees 25 years ago.
And the yard, a business unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is considering applying new technology to divvy up the bikes that would modernize an otherwise old-school mode of transportation.
"We're thinking of looking at a bike-share program to see if that would work better," said Bob Fallon, director for facilities and waterfront support at the shipyard.
"Right now our people have them assigned and there's good things about having them assigned because our people take care of their bikes," he said.
Bike-share programs have sprouted up in cities like Washington (1,670 bikes), Denver (520 bikes) and Boston (600 bikes). Bikes are typically checked out using a credit card from docking stations spread out through a city.
"We know how (bike-shares) work, and they've started doing them more in the U.S.," Fallon said. "We're just trying to figure out if that really works in an industrial environment."
That bumpy waterfront terrain means the shipyard buys bikes that are simple and sturdy.
"They're durable and they have a wider tire than the slick 10-speed racing bikes," said Dave Byrum, a manager in the maintenance department whose employees get called upon to work in all corners of the yard.
Byrum said the Spartan bikes, with no hand-brakes or gears, are meant to withstand the shipyard's tough riding environment — 2.5 miles of riverfront and a web of railroad tracks.
Chief among the safety lessons taught to new bike riders at the yard is how to get over tracks without spilling.
"We try to make sure employees are crossing the tracks in a perpendicular movement so the front can't get hung up and flip you over the handle bars," Byrum. "And believe me, that's happened to me, too."
Gary Wilson, a maintenance electrician who has used a bicycle to get around the yard for 22 years, put it more succinctly.
"You definitely have to worry about the railroad tracks or you'll find yourself lying down," Wilson said.
Pitfalls aside, he said riding a bike can be a fun way to get around.
"On a day like today, it's like a day at the beach," he said on a recent breezy, sunny morning.
There's also a business case for bikes. A bicycle is efficient, according to Byrum and Fallon.
A 20-minute walk from the north end of the yard to the south end can be done in 10 minutes on a bike. For an employee who might have to assess a task, go to another location to grab a tool or piece of material and then return, the travel time adds up.
The bikes have baskets, so workers can haul tools or material.
Byrum called the bikes an essential tool in his department: "A lot of employees come here and work in a shop and they typically stay in that shop, but on the maintenance side you're transient quite frequently and you may work two, three or four jobs during a day."
A bicycle at the yard can last up to 15 years, according to Warren Doyle, general foreman in charge of the bike fleet. With that kind of longevity, they vary in terms of brand, color and amount of rust.
The shipyard contracts out its bike repairs to the tune of about $150,000 a year Doyle said, adding "we repair on the order of 1,000 bikes a year."
"About 800 a year of those are flat tires, but then you get basket, chain, chain guard, fender (repairs)."
Occasionally, a bike will show up needing a repair after it has been customized by its owner.
"We're dealing with shipbuilders, and shipbuilders know how to work with steel, so you'll see bicycles with their handle bars up here," he said, mimicking the big "U" handle shape popularized by custom motorcycle TV shows.
"Any modification to the frame and it's scrapped," Doyle said, containing a chuckle. "You can paint it, you can put tape on it, but no structural modifications."
By the numbers
Bikes at the shipyard: 6,000+
Employee-to-bike ratio: 3.5
Vehicles at the shipyard: 400
Bikes used in Washington, D.C.,'s bike-share program: 1,670