Five ways employers are thinking big on commuter benefits

A new publication from the Association for Commuter Transportation, entitled “Getting to Work,” highlights the ways several forward-thinking employers are offering better commuting options to their employees. Each story offers a look at the unique transportation challenges major employers face – from parking crunches to time-consuming commutes – and which solutions have proven effective in addressing them.

Keeping ridesharing fresh

While carpooling rates have fallen consistently across the U.S., Salt River Project, a water and electricity utility in Phoenix, Ariz., has maintained a strong employee ridesharing rate for decades. Starting in the 1970s, SRP began promoting carpooling as part of a sustainability campaign, encouraging employees to do “one in five for cleaner skies” – as in, take at least one carpool commute per week.

Today that trend and ridesharing culture continues. SRP enjoys a 6 percent vanpool commute rate and an attractive vanpool setup: the utility leases vans to ferry employees to and from its 20 office locations, and employees only have to split the costs of gas.

“We subsidize the vanpool because it’s been, hands­ down, one of the most effective ways of getting employees involved in an alternative mode of commuting,” SRP transportation coordinator Perez told ACT.

A free connection to transit

In Atlanta, Coca-Cola is also offering rides for employees, but on a fixed route. The “Red Bus,” which first launched in 2013, circulates from the company’s two downtown office locations to the MARTA Civic Center rail station. The first-last mile transit connection is further cemented with a complementary incentive: a $50 transit pass monthly subsidy, more than half the cost of a $95 monthly MARTA pass.

Speaking with ACT, Eric Ganther of Coca-Cola explained that the ease of use makes the shuttle a popular option.

“‘The transit benefit helps. But the [most impactful piece] is the shuttle,’ Ganther said. ‘It’s that direct connection from transit stop to doorstep that makes the choice to leave your car at home easier, one part of helping ease the barrier to entry for those who have never used public transit to get to work.'”

Coca-Cola sees its responsibility to commuters and employees as part of its long history with Atlanta, where it has resided for over a century. The company estimates that its shuttle replaces approximately 800 trips each day in the metro region.

Use new transit as a jumping-off point

The opening of the first leg of Metro’s Silver Line reshaped the transportation landscape in Northern Virginia three years ago. In McLean, Va., not-for-profit MITRE sought to build off of the interest in the new option by investing in commuter benefits to encourage some employees, many of whom drove through Beltway traffic, to try the new Metro line.

The organization found that, with Metro nearby, the number of employees taking advantage of the pre-tax transit benefits is now on track to quadruple pre-Metro levels. Now, employees can also take advantage of a $30 subsidy on top of the pre-tax benefits. MITRE also reported to ACT that the number of employees commuting by transit has yet to level off as of late last year.

Like Coca-Cola, MITRE complements its transit benefits with a free employee shuttle between the Silver Line and its office locations.

Pay employees to not drive

Seattle Children’s Hospital, a national leader in commuter benefits, has been working to reduce drive-alone commuting since the early 1990s in order to meet Seattle’s commute reduction plan. Using a three-part model for shifting commute preferences – parking reform, non-driving subsidies, and amenities – SCH has already reduced its drive-alone percentage by 35 points in the last 20 years.

One key part of this plan is a daily subsidy for commuting by any mode other than driving alone. Employees log their commutes in a web portal, and are in turn given $4 for each day they do not drive. This creates an additional opportunity cost for driving that, when combined with market-rate parking costs, adds up over time and helps influence transportation choices.

Expedite longer commutes through vanpools

At Marriott’s current headquarters in North Bethesda, Md., three miles from the nearest Metro station, the hotel company has seen success in a recently-launched vanpool program. After Marriott’s transportation manager Jude Miller reached out to employees about connecting those who lived near each other to better commuting options, two vanpools launched in 2015. In the short time since then, four others have taken off as well, bringing employees from as far as Ashburn, Va.

As Miller told ACT, the vanpool can be a time-saving alternative for those who would otherwise drive long distances alone: “In a van, driving in an HOV lane, it definitely takes less time to get here, making employees happier and more productive.” Car rental provider Enterprise operates the vanpools and stressed the flexibility of the option, noting that Marriott can add or eliminate pools depending on future changes in commuter ridership.

Marriott also encourages employees to apply their $120 monthly commuting subsidy toward the cost of the vanpools. And while the publication makes no mention of Marriott’s recently-announced move to downtown Bethesda, the new location mere steps from Metro will open new transit options to its commuters.

It’s worth checking out “Getting to Work” for a deeper dive into each commuter benefit program: beyond the cited options, each works to offer a network of additional benefits to appeal to commuters of all types and needs.

Photo: The McLean Metro station on the Silver Line (Malcolm K., Flickr, Creative Commons).

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