Employers play a major role in shaping commuting behavior

miami rush hour traffic

Rush hour traffic along I-95 in Miami (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

For sustainable transportation advocates, changing people’s commuting behaviors can seem like our white whale.

While commutes account for just 19% of total personal trips in the US, they play an outsized role in our transportation system, accounting for 27.8% of total vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Their timing is also critical. The concept of rush hour revolves around our commute patterns. In cities like Washington, DC and Los Angeles, rush hour congestion can make life hell commuters, costing them time, money, and sanity. But in cities that are not growing and have no real congestion issues normally, these rush hour periods are particularly important.

For a city like Cleveland, commuting patterns directly influence the transportation infrastructure we end up with. The influx of drivers heading to and from work each day provides justification to expand our already overbuilt road system, which has serious impacts on development patterns, travel choices, and mobile emissions. If we could smooth these demand spikes by reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on the road, we could potentially upend this vicious cycle, which justifies the continued addition of freeway lane miles to the system.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that we’ve made little, if any ground in this area. In 1960, the Census Bureau reported that 64% of Americans drove to work; they did not differentiate between driving alone and carpooling at the time. Another 12.1% of commuters used public transit, while just under 10% walked. By 1980, thanks to OPEC oil embargo, 19.7% of Americans carpooled, and the drive alone number stayed at 64.4%, even as public transit use fell.

But by 2014, these trends had reversed; 76.3% of Americans drive alone to work, while just 5% take transit, and 3.4% walk or bike. To date, our efforts to get people to stop driving alone to work have failed spectacularly.

Commuting: What is the role of employers?

Part of the problem with these efforts is that we have focused far too much on the individual. Commute mode decisions are a two-way street (pun intended). They depend not only on the whims of the individual, but also on employers’ decisions. People don’t just decide to drive to work in a vacuum. Their universe of choices are shaped by a number of endogenous and exogenous factors, including things entirely in the control of their employers.

This thought really crossed my mind recently while I was reading an article on electric vehicles (EVs) by Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Mims noted the vital role that employers can play in normalizing EVs for their employees:

Placing charging stations at workplaces, where cars spend much of their time, will be uniquely powerful. When a workplace installs a charging station, employees are 20 times as likely to buy a vehicle with a plug, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Energy.

In light of this fact, it’s important to consider what, precisely, employers can do to influence the commute patterns of their employees.

Earlier this year, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability and NOACA partnered together to launch what they called the Commuter Choice Challenge. The goal of the program is “encouraging Northeast Ohio organizations of all shapes and sizes to take action in sustainable transportation.”

While some people may scoff at the idea that we should reward organizations that provide pre-tax transit passes to their employees, there really are a number of steps employers can take to foster mode shift. Collectively, this effort to provide alternatives and enhance the efficiency of our transportation system is known as transportation demand management (TDM).

Changing jobs and the importance of signalling

One of the simplest things that an employer can do is to act as a knowledge broker and paragon for their employees. For most people, commuting is a habit – once people start driving to work everyday, it becomes very difficult to shake them out of it.

Because commuting is a habit, there are only so many potential points at which an intervention is likely to succeed. But habits become weaker when your personal circumstances change. This context tends to shift most abruptly after major life events, such as moving or changing jobs.

In a study published earlier this year, Ben Clark, Kiron Chatterjee, and Steve Melia from the University of the West of England explored how these life events affect people’s commutes. They found that, while one-fifth of all British commuters change their mode from one year to the next, car commuting is far stickier. Just 8.6% of car commuters changed away from driving, and the mean duration of their commute mode was 6.3 years, twice as long as those for public transit (3.0 years) or active transportation (3.2 years).

Targeting new hires can be a highly effective way to disrupt the stability of car commuting. The odds that a person will switch from driving to alternative modes increases 2.5-fold when people change jobs. This highlights the importance of providing new hires with comprehensive TDM options and information, not just a parking pass. Demonstrating from day one that your workplace acknowledges and supports non-SOV modes helps to normalize them for employees. Signalling is an important part of behavioral change.

Pull factors matter…

If employers wish to reduce their SOV share, they need to provide a suite of incentives to get them out of their cars. These pull factors can come in a variety of forms, from reduced health insurance premiums for people who use active transportation to subsidized transit passes.

Considerable evidence suggests that these sorts of TDM packages can go a long way. In a 2005 study, researchers from the U.S. EPA examined the impact of the Agency’s Best Workplaces for Commuters (BWC) program, which recognizes employers that encourage, educate, and incentivize their employees to try alternative commute modes.

The researchers compared the commute patterns among employees using the BWC programs to the average commuter in these same Census blocks. They then modeled the impacts of these commute patterns to see the associated reductions in gasoline use and mobile emissions. According to the authors:

The results of this survey indicate that where employers provide employees with incentives to commute by means other than driving alone, significant percentages of them take advantage of these benefits. Comprehensive benefits packages such as those enjoyed by commuters in the BWC group, with financial incentives, services (such as guaranteed ride home, carpool matching, etc.) and informational campaigns, appear to produce reductions of trips, VMT, pollutants, and fuel consumption of around 15 percent even under conservative assumptions.

Another 2012 paper from Virginia Tech professor Ralph Buehler found that providing bike parking, showers, and locker rooms increases the odds that employees will bike to work nearly 5-fold. Clearly pull factors, such as financial incentives and facilities investments, play a central role in this equation.

But push factors – especially parking – matter more

But, as with anything else, changing commute behaviors requires both push and pull factors. And the latter are particularly key, as the single most effective strategy that an employer can use to reduce SOV share is to remove parking subsidies.

In the US, some 95% of US commuters receive free parking at work. The provision of this benefit can increase the SOV rate for commutes by up to 50%.

UCLA professor Donald Shoup, the godfather of parking research, has explored the effects of curbing this parking subsidy. In a 2005 report, he outlined the benefits of implementing a parking cash out program, by which employers provide commuters with the option of receiving a cash incentive equal to their parking subsidy if they don’t drive alone to work. Such programs allow employees who really want to drive to work to continue getting discounted parking, but it also incentivizes alternatives for those who would rather try them.

Shoup’s research in California found that cash out programs can cut SOV share by 17%. A separate study from Daniel Hess, also of UCLA, concluded that by charging $6 per day for parking, Portland was able to cut its SOV share by 16%.

Getting parking right is even more important than these numbers show, however. The lure of free parking so strong that if an employer rolls out a TDM program but fails to price parking, the latter will simply crowd out the former. As Dr. Shoup put it, “Advocating ridesharing while offering free parking is like denouncing smoking while offering free cigarettes.”

A separate paper Buehler and his colleague Andrea Hamre explored this issue. Their research showed that providing free parking increases the share of commuters who drive alone, regardless of what other incentives the employer may provide. Without free parking, 75.9% of Washington, DC area commuters would drive alone. Free parking increases that share to an astounding 96.6%. Providing subsidized transit and incentives for active transportation, while also supplying free parking, only takes that SOV share down to 86.8%.

As the authors concluded, their research “suggests that benefit combinations that include free parking either overwhelm or render insignificant the positive effects of benefits for public transportation, walking, and cycling.”

Location, location, location

But even the most comprehensive TDM packages will struggle to overcome another factor that employers can control – their location.

Often times, sustainable transportation advocates focus on the negative effects of residential sprawl, but neglect workplace sprawl. Just as people in the US have spread farther and farther outward, so too have employers.

Consider Northeast Ohio. The region boasts five major employment hubs, like downtown Cleveland and University Circle. Yet, combined, these hubs only account for less than one-quarter of all jobs in the region. The rest are distributed broadly across the five counties.

This outcome poses a major challenge to TDM. Transit ceases to be viable when households and destinations are sprawled out. The same holds true for active transportation. No one is going to choose to walk 10 miles to work in an exurb without sidewalks.

The Clark, Chatterjee, and Melia study illustrates this clearly. If a worker’s commute increases from less than to more than two miles, the odds that s/he will switch from active commuting to driving increases 30-fold. The research seems to indicate that two miles is a key threshold; most people simply will not bike to work if their commute is longer than that.

According to the National Center for Transit Research, location may be the most important variable in the commute equation. No matter how strong the TDM package or how much the organization supports alternative modes, locating your office in the middle of an exurban office park locks in your employees’ commute options.

Ultimately, I think we have focused our attention too narrowly on the individual commuter for too long. Research has shown time and time again that the most effective TDM strategies target the employer first, as that is the critical leverage point.

Large institutions that claim to support sustainability need to back up their words through their actions when it comes to commute options. It’s not enough to simply post an annual sustainability report or get your buildings LEED certified if you subsidize parking and locate your office in exurbia. The transportation sector is now the largest source of carbon pollution in the US. It’s time for employers to act like it.

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