The Boss Pitches Bikes

Paul Bass PhotosAniyzhai Annamalai heard Michael Sernyak out, but she wasn’t making any promises about pedaling to work anytime soon.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make people like you commute” by bicycle, Sernyak told Annamalai (pictured) after a staff lunch at the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC).

The menu featured pasta and vegetables, tossed salad—and a pitch to come to work on two wheels.

Annamalai, a staff psychiatrist at CMHC, comes from Hamden to work on Park Street. She’d like to bike there. But she’s heard too many horror stories from friends about hostile, aggressive drivers.

Sernyak, CMHC’s CEO and a competitive bike racer in his youth, recently got back on two wheels to come to work two days a week, pedaling 15 miles in an hour each way from and back to his Branford home. Now he has embarked on a mission to get his employees to cycle to the job, too.

He has set a goal: 50 new bike commuters, up from the current 10, out of a 500-person workforce. Then he hopes to convince the League of American Bicyclists to designate CMHC a “Bicycle Friendly Business”; from there he’d seek to unite with his medical institutional neighbors (Yale-New Haven Hospital, the medical school) to bring broader changes to promote bike community.

To get to 50 employees, Sernyak is trying to speak with every employee open to trying the commute and asking them “what is it that’s stopping you” from taking the plunge?

He has lifted a rule against stashing bikes in CMHC offices. He has plans underway for a basement bike storage room and for new on-site showers.

Those ideas came from meetings Sernyak has been holding with staffers the past three months. The latest gathering was the recent lunch with Annamalia and some 20 others in conjunction with National Bike to Work Day.

Sernyak found receptive ears, as well as some obstacles still in his path.

He tackled the challenge with the fervor of an evangelist hunting for converts.

“The people we serve here die 25 years before their time. We know that they should be more healthy. For us to be more convincing in that role, we have to be more healthy,” said Sernyak, who at 50 bursts with the energy and enthusiasm of a college student. His trim frame shows no sign of the 65 pounds he lost prior to embarking on the new mission for his staff.

He noted that smoking cessation programs don’t work as well “when a doctor’s holding a cigarette” while counseling quitting. Same with promoting cycling.

He also noted that people who live five or even 10 miles from the job can sometimes get to work faster on a bike than a car. “This is a city. People should be able to commute five or 10 miles,” he said. “Why have people drive in their cars, sit at their desks all day, and drive home? Commuting to work and commuting home are great bookends for the day.”

That argument went over fine at the luncheon on May 18. The news about showers and indoor bike parking went over better.

It was enough to convince Maida Rodriguez (pictured) finally to follow through with long-held plans to buy a bike.

Rodriguez, a 36-year-old clerical support staffer in CMHC’s Hispanic clinic, walks to work from the City Point neighborhood. Her husband bikes; her toddlers want to start. Once she heard she’ll have a safe place to store it, she vowed to start. “It will definitely be fun,” she said.

Alexander Westphal (at left in photo), a 36-year-old forensics fellow, already rides. But after some minor injuries on sometimes-treacherous (for bikes) Whitney Avenue a few years ago, he had stopped cycling to work from his Spring Glen home. “Inspiration like this—the shower thing is awesome. I will start again because of this,” he said.

So chalk up two more staffers toward the 50. Don’t count Annamalai in. At least not yet.

“People I talked to who ride a lot seem to know [at least] one horror story on the road. That scares me,” she said. “These people can be kind of nuts” driving cars around here.

If New Haven had separated bike lanes—not just painted stripes, but stretches with physical dividers from car lanes—she’d be more likely to ride, she said.

Sernyak would love to see that happen. In the meantime, an ally he brought in for the recent lunch, Melinda Tuhus (at right with him in photo), pitched another strategy to convinced Annamalai to give it a try: route help. Sernyak plans to offer any interested employees advice on suggested routes to work that minimize contact with heavy car traffic.

Tuhus, who’s active with the Elm City Cycling advocacy group, had organized a successful Bike to Work breakfast earlier that day that drew a record 121 commuters. She brought advice pamphlets to the CMHC lunch.

After the formal remarks, Tuhus sketched out a route to CMHC from Annamalai’s Hamden home. It would take here along the Farmington Canal trail to Webster Street onto Ashmun, then on Grove to (briefly) Elm and Park.

Annamalai listened. She didn’t say yes. She didn’t say no.

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posted by: Dan Kennedy on May 29, 2012  3:25pm

Painted-line bike lanes are worse than nothing, since they provide a false sense of security. Physical dividers are a great idea.

posted by: anonymous on May 29, 2012  5:07pm

Dan Kennedy: Painted bike lanes have been shown to increase the clearance (distance) that drivers give to cyclists, cause cyclists to ride farther from car doors, significantly increase safety for both cyclists and motorists, and increase the attractiveness of the street to cyclists which causes more people to ride bikes. That’s why they are a design standard in hundreds of thousands of cities.

Obviously, separated lanes ( are preferable, because they increase safety even more and make riding more comfortable for a much larger number of road users.

It is absolutely essential that our city could roll out more of both, particularly in the low income areas which are home to the largest number of cyclists.

posted by: greenhouse on May 29, 2012  5:35pm

I recently met a Portland Oregon resident who moved to New Haven for Grad school.  To Anonymous’ credit She told me Portland has a lot of painted bike lane lines and they work well. She also told me some employers financially reimburse their employees for bicycling to work.  Every 30 bike visits to her old employer netted her $50!  What a great way to motivate people!  Maybe Michael Sernyak can continue to be a trendsetter and get his employer to ante up, so to speak. 

It’s been 3.5 years since I ditched my car for a 3 mile bike ride to/from work and/or an occasional bus ride and I am not looking back!  I have saved thousands of dollars by being a one car family without a lot of difficulty.  I call my bike ride to work “My best cup of coffee of the day”.

posted by: Nick Walter on May 29, 2012  9:43pm

This is a wonderful effort by Mike Sernyak. Even if he doesn’t reach the goal of 50 bike commuters, it will have been well worth it. Connecticut Mental Health Center has some hugely talented and dedicated staff, and it’s great that Mike is doing something to benefit them, in addition to all the patients whom the Center serves every day.

posted by: Davis David on May 30, 2012  4:11am

This is GREAT… more people should ride. It inspires me to ride, and really enjoy the city.

posted by: Curious on May 30, 2012  10:17am

Why all the fuss over bike commuters, and no love for the people who choose to walk to work every day?

posted by: anonymous on May 30, 2012  11:56am

Curious, many people who live within a mile or so of work already walk to work.  I agree it would be good to recognize them too.

More than 40 percent of urban trips in the United States are less than two miles, yet 90 percent of those short trip are currently taken by car. See

The main reason why promoting bicycling and transit use are considered worldwide to be among the best strategies to make cities healthier, cleaner, and more economically vibrant is that the majority of commuters live within a few miles distance (but not necessarily within one mile). 

The amount of money that would be saved, and pumped directly into our local economy, if even a tiny fraction of these people shifted from cars to biking and walking runs into the billions of dollars.

posted by: DingDong on May 30, 2012  10:24pm

A great way to encourage bicycling/walking/public transit and to make everyone happy is for employers to monetize parking benefits.  That is, if an employer currently gives her employees free parking, she can say “everyone is now going to get $100/month [or whatever the appropriate number is].  If you want, you can apply that money towards a parking space or, if you don’t drive, you can keep it.”

There are some small tax complications (which Congress or the IRS should really fix), but it’s still possible and a highly effective to encourage employees to bike/walk/take transit.

posted by: Curious on June 1, 2012  10:33am

DongDong, that it an outstanding idea!

However, at least the Yale staff at CMHC have to pay for their own parking, and I am pretty sure the state employees do as well.  It’s a big issue, and I don’t see it changing soon, if ever.