Driving a Low-Carbon Commute

Driving a Low-Carbon Commute

Nearly every day since 1963, Barnes Ellis has driven 10 miles to and from his Portland, Ore., law firm alone.

But he has since traded his $250 monthly parking permit -- and his high fuel costs -- for a free transit pass. His law firm gave them to workers to promote alternatives to ugly commutes.

Ellis isn't sure if he would have given up his solo commute without the nudge.

"If you think about it, 45 years is a long habit to break," he said.

Ellis' law firm, Stoel Rives, is one of a growing number of companies turning to employee commute programs to promote alternative transportation, boost worker quality of life and reduce carbon footprints.

Public transit, carpooling and vanpools, flextime, biking, walking and shuttles are all part of the commute program arsenal companies are offering the U.S. workforce, 76 percent of whom drive to work alone.

With workers feeling the financial pinch from high fuel prices, many believe some of the burden should fall to the boss.

In a February TransitCenter survey, 65 percent of employees said employers should take the lead in easing their commutes. Others said commute headaches could lead them to find another job.

"Employees are seriously considering changing jobs due to the high cost of commuting," said Larry Filler, president and CEO of TransitCenter Inc., which offers tax-free transit benefits. "This is on top of the other difficulties employees are having, such as traffic congestion."

Commutes of the Future

Some municipalities and states are implementing four-day work weeks to reduce worker commutes and save money by operating one fewer day. But this isn't an option for many businesses that must service customers five or more days a week.

One popular route for many companies: telecommuting.

"It can be a real vehicle for raising employee productivity and keeping retention high at a time when … gas prices and carbon footprints are on employees' minds," James Brooks, Cisco's director of human resources.

Over the last few years, Cisco tested its Virtual Office telecommuting technology on more than 12,000 employees worldwide -- roughly 20 percent of staff. The results: Auto emissions fell by 30,435 tons annually and Cisco saved more than $168,000 that would have gone to buy carbon offsets.

Pre-tax commuter benefits are popular, and can even save companies money. Employees can deduct up to $115 from their paychecks each month, before taxes, to cover the cost of transit or vanpooling. This reduces payroll taxes for employers, and saves workers money. About two-thirds of the employers offering pre-tax commuter benefits extend it as a subsidized fringe benefit, Filler said. Some employers also subsidize bike purchases or retrofits, including Clif Bar, which give workers up to $500.

Companies like Google and Yahoo offer private shuttle services, while other companies are exploring vanpool services. Enterprise Rideshare, for instance, rents vans on a monthly basis in Texas, Oregon, Nevada, Georgia and California markets. The cost varies, but on average, riders typically pay between $140 and $175 per month. Interest in the services has risen dramatically over the last six months, said Manager Connie McGee.

"Our calls increased by 75 percent," McGee said. "It's been huge."

The Business Case

Key Tips for Planning an Employee Commute Program

Look at the transit resources in your area and form partnerships Stanford University joined local transit agencies to create special subsidized rail and transit passes for university faculty and staff.

Give people choices, not mandates Stoel Rives gave workers at its Portland, Ore., office free transit passes and its building offers free bike racks and shower facilities. It also offers zip car membership to workers who need a car during the day and carpool matching service.

Keep it simple and equitable Clif Bar rewards workers with up to $960 annually for walking, biking, carpooling, taking public transit and even riding a skateboard to work.

If you give workers incentives, make them count. Money talks but other items will get workers' attention. Clif Bar gives employee participating in the Cool Commute program popular prizes, such as gift cards, massages or carbon offsets. “They don't want something that's going to end up in a landfill,” said Human Resources Manager Jen Freitas.

See also our tip sheet below on "Starting an Employee Commute Program in 10 Easy Steps"


Easier worker commutes can fatten bottom lines. An internal survey at Sun Microsystems, for example, shows that workers gave 60 percent of the time they saved commuting back to the company. In gridlocked regions throughout the country, that could add up to an extra hour each day, per telecommuter.

Reducing turnover costs also make good business sense, said Phil Winters, transportation demand management program director at the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida.

The cost to hire and retrain new staff and increase productivity to the level of the worker being replaced can be up to 1.5 times the worker's salary.

"Taking that into account, it can be a $100,000 investment, depending on the salary of people being replaced," Winters said.

Promoting alternative transportation can save the cost providing parking, which can run thousands of dollars per space to build and maintain structures.

"What resources would you have to put forth to accommodate parkers?" asked Brodie Hamilton, Stanford University's director of transportation and parking services. "It can cost more than $1,000 a year to pay off the loan for each space. If they take half of that and spend $500 to subsidize (employee) transportation, they would have saved some money."

Alternative commutes, however, are not without pitfalls or challenges. Employees working from home may face distractions, lack of motivation or a yearning for social interaction, while their superiors must adjust to managing an off-site workforce. Employees could hesitate giving up their cars because of a fear of being stranded at work if an emergency arises, said Kit Powis, 511 Rideshare communications manager. Safety and weather concerns may keep workers from hopping on bikes. It's also hard to convince someone to choose the bus or train over their car if it will take them a lot longer to reach their destination.

The Footprint

Employee commuting can make up a big chunk of a company's carbon footprint. At Genetech's South San Francisco campus, for example, employee commuting accounted for one-fifth of total emissions at that location in 2007, generating some 31,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The company's commute program offers a $4 daily cash incentive for alternative commuting, and it also offers a private corporate shuttle service. Genentech's efforts reduced emissions 6 percent between 2006 and 2007.

More than 18,000 of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems employees use its Open Work telecommute program, which, in 2007, helped avoid about 29,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. The program saved Sun nearly $68 million in real estate costs. Sun wants to reduce U.S. CO2 emissions 20 percent below 2002 levels by 2012.

Starting an Employee Commute-Benefits Program in 10 Easy Steps

Choose an Employee Transportation Coordinator: Ideal characteristics include self-motivated, problem-solver, promoter, communicator and facilitator.

Win Management Support: Executives need to understand the dynamics between the company, employees and program goals.

Request Free Commute Services: In the San Francisco Bay Area, 511 Rideshare can provide transportation consultants to help coordinate vanpools and commute programs. There are other 511 programs throughout the country but not all offer commuting assistance. Check with your local transportation management agency or transportation provider for city, county, state or regional programs aimed at reducing traffic congestion.

Look at the Big Picture: As you design an employee commute program, consider the commuting needs of your employees, the special characteristics of your company, and transportation options in the area. That includes your employees’ travel method and distance, work schedules, surrounding land use, and employee attitudes, among other considerations.

Identify Your Objectives: Identify measurable targets to help you design the best program for your company, such as recruiting and retaining quality employees, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, offer a low-cost benefit, reduce parking needs, etc.

Design Your Program: Create your program based on the unique transportation needs of your site. Consider including carpool incentives, bicycle facilities, commuter tax benefits, flexible hours, guaranteed ride home program, etc.

Implement Your Program: Establish a schedule and time-line to meet your objectives. Plan implementation steps, establish key agency, company contacts and materials from local transit-related agencies and proponents.

Promote Your Program: Get the word out with fliers, emails, commute fairs, prizes and company newsletters.

Measure and Evaluate: Ongoing measurement is crucial to a successful program. Note participation, employee feedback, and costs. Determine those commute-benefit programs that work best and those that don’t. Tracking allows you to evaluate your program, gauge its cost-effectiveness and exceed your objectives. Consider tracking by emissions, participation rate, cost and employee feedback.

Expand and Improve Consider adding additional benefits depending on program success and employee feedback.

Source: This is an adapted and abridged version of a 511 Rideshare tip sheet.

The Stoel Rives law firm expanded its employee commute program earlier this year, with the goal of reducing emissions 10 percent by the end of 2008. It also wants 10 percent of its workforce to give up traveling alone to work.

Getting Them Out of Their Cars

Stoel Rives runs 11 offices throughout the country. Just how each office approaches employee commuting depends on nearby resources. All workers at the Portland office, for example, received free transit passes in May, said Sustainability Manager Phil Moran.

Before that, Stoel Rives subsidized half the cost of the passes and participation hovered around 36 percent, Moran said. After the free passes were handed out, that grew to 48 percent.

Stoel Rives launched its Alternative Commute Challenge in June and promoted it via emails sent every few weeks and an alternative commute fair. Employees participate in the program by logging into an internal web portal and recording the number of miles they traveled to and from work using alternate transportation.

Each post scores them an entry into a bi-monthly drawing for a gift certificate. To date, workers have logged in more than 277,000 "alternative" miles. About 20 people, including Barnes Ellis, turned in their parking permits.

"We have 163 (parking) spots and used to have a waiting list," Moran said. "Now we have no waiting list."

Stanford University tried to gets faculty and staff to abandon their cars after Santa Clara County approved its growth plan in 2000 with several conditions. One motivating factor: no net new peak-hour trips.

At the time, the school already had a robust commuter benefits package: Clean Air Cash, a program that paid $160 to commuter not to drive in alone; reserved spaces and free parking for vanpools and carpools; an emergency ride home program; and strong bicycling infrastructure.

To ramp up efforts, Stanford started the Commute Club. "It creates a group identity for all those people who agreed to turn in their parking permits," Hamilton, the parking and traffic director, said.

Stanford used GIS software and survey results, along with student and employee databases, to analyze where people live and how they travel. It worked with local transit agencies to provide free and subsidized rail and transit passes to various regions. It also increased the cost of on-campus parking permits, created an online ride match program, expanded the university shuttle service, boosted Clean Air Cash incentives (now $282 per year) , added carsharing, gave away prizes for Commute Club members, and established an extensive marketing and outreach program.

The efforts paid off: Between 2002 and 2007, the university employee drive-alone rate dropped 20 percentage points to 52 percent and Commute Club membership rose 82 percent. Commuter parking permit sales fell by as much as 10 percent.

The school's growth plan spurred the initial efforts to limit peak trips, Hamilton said, but because it views itself as a partner in the community, reducing congestion and improving air quality was the right thing to do.

"The transportation efforts have transitioned from a trip limit focus," Hamilton said, "to a broader sustainability effort."

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