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How to take advantage of alternative transportation in the North Bay

 

Many factors are driving North Bay commuters to seek alternate ways to travel to work, including increased traffic congestion, the “green” movement to get more cars off the road, and increasing gasoline prices. However, while some are focusing on long-term solutions, such as reinstating rail service in the North Bay and broadening freeways, others are looking for ideas they can implement right away to make their morning and evening commutes a little easier.

 

Let’s get together

One program, 511 Regional Rideshare, has developed a number of initiatives to help commuters and employers. Originally started in the 1970s by carpool advocates who wanted to share rides to work, the organization was eventually absorbed by local agencies and counties, some of which were (or became) congestion management groups (local, regional and county agencies whose main goal is to reduce traffic congestion in their areas). The organization was first promoted regionally as Rides for Bay Area Commuters, which then changed into 511 Rideshare, part of the Bay Area 511 system that provides free transportation information via web and phone and is funded by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (which is part of the spare the air program) and various congestion management agencies.

511’s RideMatch Service, a 14,000-member database, lets commuters find others with similar commute patterns, including points of origin and destination, start and stop times, and other preferences such as whether an individual prefers to drive only, ride only or share responsibilities.

“It’s kind of the same concept as a dating service,” quips Kit Powis, communications and public relations manager for 511 Rideshare. “What we do is match people who have similar commute styles, meaning they’re coming from a similar origin and they’re going to a similar destination at very similar times. People can sign up online or on the phone, and they put in some basic information about the days and hours they commute, and then our system sends them a list of other people who have similar patterns.”

The list includes email and phone number contacts for matches, but no other personal information. Once users receive the list, it’s up to them to establish contact with others interested in sharing the commute. Employers can also organize a RideMatch among their employees or can team up with other employers in the vicinity to create a combined RideMatch list.

“We partnered with 511 to create a new, web-based RideMatching program [for Agilent’s Santa Rosa facility],” says Jeff Weber, Sonoma County public affairs manager for Agilent Technologies in Santa Rosa. “This webpage is essentially an Agilent-only section of 511’s online RideMatching service. It will be a link from our own intranet, and our employees will have the option of voluntarily seeking other Agilent-employees only, or, if they choose, looking for potential carpool partners who work at other companies or organizations in the area. [511 Rideshare] is working with our web team here to give the site an Agilent look and feel. It will reside on their website but only be accessible to Agilent employees.”

511 Rideshare also helps employers find alternative commute plans for their employees; this includes assisting them with the set up and employee education and counseling. For example, it will help employers (as well as interested individuals or groups of employees within a company) set up vanpools, provide referrals to where they can buy or lease a van and help existing vanpools fill seats.

“If [an established vanpool] has an 8- or 10-passenger van, and it’s lost a passenger because the person got transferred or left the company, we can help find a replacement passenger through the RideMatching system,” says Powis.

Another service that benefits both employers and employees is the “pretax commuter incentive,” which, generally administered through a payroll or personnel system, lets commuters purchase pretax transit passes, including bus, BART and train tickets (up to a certain amount). The idea to allow credits toward commuting started in 1987, when the IRS first let employers offer a tax-free fringe benefit to prepay transit commuting. In 1992, led by (late) U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York, the IRS established the specific code 123(f), which increased the allowable amount to $60 monthly. The current rate for 2008 is $115.

“The employees save, because they’re paying for their transit pass pre-tax,” explains Powis. “This means, if they’re spending $1,000 on, for example, Golden Gate Transit passes per year, they can pay that pretax, which will lower their income [for tax purposes]. And the company gets to save as well, because it’s not paying FICA taxes on that income. So it’s sort of a win-win for both the employee and employer.”

One way 511 Rideshare is getting its message across is through Employer Outreach Teams, whose purpose is to advise companies how to help employees green their commute and educate them about alternative commute programs. The teams have various tools at their disposal (all free to the employer), including creating and administering a survey to determine employees’ commute patterns, and a software program that lets an employer provide customized commuting options by targeting employees’ unique needs.

“We can run a ZIP code—or ‘density’—map of where employees originate,” says Powis. “Then we go back to the employers and tell them, ‘You have x number of employees coming from this area, and x number of employees coming from this area.’ They have this option to use this commute pattern or commute mode—maybe they have transit, maybe they have vanpooling, maybe they have BART. It helps the employer target the best means of travel for employees and encourage them to use an alternate form of transportation rather than driving alone.”

There are many important, altruistic reasons 511 Rideshare and other organizations are working to reduce congestion on our freeways, particularly during peak commute times, but while being “green” is great for the environment, for commuters, a major motivating factor comes down to saving green in their wallets.

“[Protecting our environment] isn’t usually the top motivator for somebody to convert to another form of transportation,” says Powis. “When we do surveys, concern for the environment, reducing greenhouse gases and being a good custodian to the planet are usually in the top five to six, but they’re rarely on top. Saving money is almost always the biggest motivator [to change habits] when we survey people. They’re able to reduce their commuting expenses, which is becoming a much more prominent motivator with recent gas prices.”

511 Rideshare’s user data clearly reveals how increasing gas prices have had a direct relation to increased activity, and interest in alternative forms of transportation. In May 2008, new requests on the RideMatch database increased 19.3 percent over the same month in 2007. The following month, when gas prices started to rise sharply, RideMatch requests increased a whopping 125 percent over June 2007.

 

Company perks

Motivating employees to use these services hasn’t been a problem. Medtronic, which had 511 Rideshare help set up and obtain fuel subsidies for company vanpools, educate employees on various options and coordinate carpools, has the opposite problem. Its three existing vanpools to the Santa Rosa location all have waiting lists, and the company is considering putting a fourth into service.

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the vanpool participants,” says Margaret Keith, project coordinator for Medtronic. “They like not having to worry about bridge toll every day, the wear and tear on their own private vehicles and, of course, the cost savings. It’s a great benefit to the employees.”

Medtronic subsidizes more than 50 percent of vanpool expense (including gas), so the $100 per month it costs to be a passenger ($30 per month if you volunteer to drive once a week) can significantly cut an employee’s commuting costs. And with Medtronic’s vans including Wi-Fi, it’s no wonder there’s a waiting list.

For the company’s part, offering transportation alternatives such as vanpools is really an inexpensive benefit that can reap big rewards. Keeping employees productive on their commute makes them happier and less stressed—and it’s become an important recruitment and retention tool.

“When we started this almost three years ago, the gas prices weren’t near as much of a factor as they are now,” says Keith. “But there’s a lot of good talent that was down in the San Francisco area, and it was one way of showing them, ‘We want you to come work for our company: We have a great company, we’ll help you get here.’ It’s helped in recruiting good talent that didn’t want to leave the city.”

Even for employers that may not be able to put vanpools into service, there are many creative (and inexpensive) ways to encourage employees to use alternate transportation, such as offering preferential parking spots for hybrid cars, electric vehicles or carpools.

“Another thing we’re doing with the city of Santa Rosa is the ‘Santa Rosa Free Ride Trip Reduction Incentives Program,’” says Keith. “Once you sign up for it on their website and use some type of alternate transportation at least eight times a month—that means ride a bicycle, use the bus, carpool or vanpool, any of those—then you get a voucher to go to the local movie theater or have a free lunch here at Medtronic. It’s a program sponsored and funded by the city of Santa Rosa.”

Agilent recently implemented preferential parking spaces for employees who carpool or who drive hybrid or all-electric vehicles; the spots are either close to buildings or under solar panels (part of the new solar power system that started generating electricity in October 2008). Built on a canopy structure, the solar panels provide shade and therefore create preferred parking spots below. In addition, Agilent also constructed electric vehicle charging stations as part of its solar installation, so employees can charge up their vehicles while at work.

For at least the past five years, Agilent has had a “guaranteed ride home” program in place, which has helped make commute alternatives a viable option for Agilent employees. Guaranteed ride home gives employees a free taxi ride in case of an emergency requiring them to leave sooner than scheduled or a critical work deadline causing them to stay later than planned.

“This program lets employees respond quickly—and at no personal expense—to family emergencies on days that they carpool or use other commute alternatives,” says Weber. “They can contact our security department and tell them, ‘I carpooled today; I have an emergency situation.’ And our security team will call a taxi for them.

“Guaranteed ride home programs are pretty common with companies that promote commute alternatives. You have to be able to let employees know there’ll be a way for them to get home—or wherever they need to go—in case of an emergency. They won’t need to rely on their carpooler, bus or bike if they have to get somewhere fast. For a commute alternative program to have credibility and reliability, employees need some assurance they’ll be able to deal with emergency situations.”

 

The big picture

While there are some real, tangible benefits to both employers and employees, there are also obviously some bigger reasons for companies to offer alternative transportation options—and for employees to choose them.

“Different reasons [for using alternative forms of transportation] appeal to different people because of their values or situation. But I think there are enough good reasons that everybody can find at least one to say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense!’” quips Craig Tackabery, assistant director of Marin County Department of Public Works. Tackabery oversees both the Marin County Green Commute Program, which gives financial rewards to county employees for using alternative forms of commuting, and the county’s Walk Bike Marin program, which is part of the recent $25 million federal grant to fund the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP), intended to help make Marin more healthy, livable and environmentally sustainable by encouraging walking and bicycling as everyday transportation.

“The more we don’t rely on oil, the better it is for international relations—and better for a lot of things just from an economic perspective. Also, the more people walk and bike, the better it is for their health. Even transit riders are found to walk quite a bit more than people who drive by themselves, just by walking to the stop. That reduces chronic disease, obesity and diabetes…and the more those are reduced, the greater the personal and economic benefit, because we’re not spending so much on health care. It’s a big circle.”

Tackabery goes on to cite several other reasons for choosing an alternate mode of transport, including decreasing congestion so we don’t have to keep widening freeways, improving air quality, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing our carbon footprint. Last, but not least, he adds, it’s fun and social; people like living in communities where they can walk and bike. It makes a community more connected.

“The County [of Marin] really wants to be the employer of choice,” says Tackabery. “We feel people want to work for an employer that thinks about transportation and promotes alternative uses. It’s an important recruitment and retention tool. You may think you’re not in the transportation business, but you’re definitely in the employee recruitment and retention business—and having a transportation program that appeals to employees, we feel, is important.”

The bottom line is, employers shouldn’t assume that these issues don’t concern them. Improving air quality, reducing congestion and—especially as an employer—keeping employees happy and productive, in the end, benefits us all.