Improving the Journey to Work Benefits Commuters, Communities, and Companies

By David Straus

David Straus is Executive Director of the Association for Commuter Transportation an international organizational advancing progressive transportation demand management programs and policies that aim to improve the lives of commuters, the livability of communities, and economic growth of businesses.

Feb 13, 2017 | Governance, Mobility | 0 comments

Every day an estimated 130 million Americans travel to jobs located in dense urban centers, suburban office parks, and rural communities. The choices these individuals make on how they commute are influenced not only by the convenience and affordability of transportation options but are also often influenced by decisions made at the state, local, and federal level that have for decades focused on the creation, expansion, and maintenance of our road infrastructure. Focus on infrastructure rather than transportation has resulted in policies that lend to a culture of the solo-commute. The result is that a vast majority of commuters drive alone to work in personal vehicles. This over dependence on the single occupancy vehicle has led to chocking congestion in communities large and small that has a direct impact on economic activity and growth, not to mention a degraded quality of life. Thus, the negative impacts of a series of individual and governmental decisions affect us all and reverberate throughout our economy.

Changing our priorities to reflect an increased focus on people rather than vehicles is critical. It is not cars that are late for work or miss their child’s recital at school, it is people. This does not mean we must abandon efforts to maintain and grow our transportation network. On the contrary – we need a more comprehensive strategy at federal, state, and local levels to address both infrastructure and transportation.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the average delay in travel time for each commuting driver in the top 100 metro regions of the United State is now 52 hours per year. This is time away from family and lost economic productivity. Congestion costs Americans $124 billion annually and is predicted to increase to $186 billion by 2030, when the annual cost of congestion will cost each American $2,300/year[1]. Add in the cost of parking and for many, transportation is the 2nd largest expense after housing. For individuals living in a city, owning and operating a car can cost well over $10,000/year.

Many communities and employers across the country have invested in Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs aimed at encouraging drive-alone commuters to use public transit, carpooling, vanpooling, teleworking, biking, and walking. However, in order to reduce the nation’s drive alone rate and mitigate the negative impacts of single-occupancy vehicles, we must start thinking differently about the programs, policies, and transportation services we provide.

The Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT), the nation’s leading advocate for TDM programs and policies that support commuters, encourages communities and employers to think smarter about creating a more efficient and effective transportation system that uses our existing networks more efficiently.

We must support new public practices and business models that clear the path for the development and deployment of new services. To support partnerships that expand our existing transit systems, we must look at ways of lowering the hurdles related to government regulation and procurement processes, which will make it easier for services aimed at eliminating the first mile/last mile barrier and new, innovative micro-transit companies to become functional.

We must encourage efforts that build strong partnerships between the public and private sector in the planning and provision of transportation services. Transportation Management Associations (TMAs) are non-profit organizations that bring together employers and building owners within a geographic area to aggregate transportation services that increase options for commuters, providing benefits of reduced congestion and improved air-quality to the entire region. Supporting the development of new TMAs in more communities will help leverage scarce public resources with private sector investments. In addition, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and local governments should increase efforts to engage the private sector in the planning and delivery of transportation solutions that will better align with economic activity.

The Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) supports and encourages employers to take an active role in implementing transportation options for their employees. In our recent report Getting to Work, ACT shined a spotlight on some of the best practices being utilized by employers to change how employees travel to work. The case studies highlighted:

  • innovative local transit partnerships that utilize shuttles to increase access to the existing transit system;
  • increased support of vanpooling to provide options to employees who now often live too far away to be served by public transit;
  • creative employee engagement tactics that build awareness amongst employees; and
  • methods followed by (and that benefits) forward-looking organizations which collaborate with local government agencies to manage regional transportation

Employer-sponsored commuter programs are essential to creating work sites that support the choices of employees to commute to work in the most efficient, affordable, and sustainable option available, whether they choose to carpool, vanpool, take public transit, bike, walk, or telecommute. Employers also benefit from these programs through increased recruitment and retention rates, lower parking costs, improved productivity, cost savings, and a higher quality of life for employees.

To achieve a desired reduction in drive-alone commute trips, we can’t simply hope that all employers see the benefits of taking internal actions. In some situations, local jurisdictions must step in to legislate a minimum level of engagement, following policies that expand transportation options for their residents and workforce.

In 2009, San Francisco passed the first commuter benefit ordinance in the country. It requires businesses with locations in San Francisco and 20 or more employees nationwide to offer commuter benefits to employees. This may be offered through an employee-paid pre-tax deduction, an employer paid subsidy, or employer provided transportation service like a shuttle bus or vanpool.

New York and Washington, DC followed San Francisco’s lead and enacted their own ordinances in 2014 and 2016.

The transit benefit is a highly effective and easy tool for employers to provide options to their employees as it reduces the cost of transit through the use of pre-tax dollars.

Transit benefits can be offered one of three ways:

  • Pre-Tax– Employees elect to withhold funding from their paycheck. Those funds are used to purchase fare media for transit or vanpools. The employee is not taxed on the funding withheld and the employer does not pay employment taxes on those funds.
  • Subsidy– Employers provide transit or vanpool media in addition to salary. The employee is not taxed on the additional value of the fare media and the employer does not pay employment taxes on those funds.
  • Combination – Employers subsidize a portion of a commuters’ expenses and the employee withholds an additional amount based on need and the monthly cap.

To that end, ACT has launched its 25×20 Transit Benefits Ordinance Campaign to encourage 25 local governments to pass transit benefit ordinances by the end of 2020. If successful, this initiative could put discounted transit passes in the pockets of tens of thousands of commuters that previously had no access to any transportation benefit. This will lead to a reduction in drive-alone commute trips and have the added benefit of encouraging the use of public transit for non-work related trips.

By encouraging and supporting private sector involvement in TDM and utilizing impactful programs that reduce the cost and increase access to transit we can start to see measureable reductions in drive-alone commuters.   The impacts will benefit us all through improved air quality, reduced congestion, happier employees, and more money in the pockets of families.

[1] 2014 study by INRIX and the Centre for Economics and Businesses

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