Commuter Choice Primer
An Employee's Guide to Implementing Effective Commuter Choice Programs
Conceptual Framework for Commuter Choice
To better understand the broader definition of Commuter Choice, it is useful to describe a conceptual framework focused on the key components of Commuter Choice:
Commuter Choice opportunities cover the range of options available to employers that may affect many aspects of employee travel behavior. There are supporting programs that enable the components of Commuter Choice to function more effectively. There are several situations that act as motivators for employers to provide situations where the commuters choice results in tangible benefits to the employee/employer and the overall community. The following sections of this document provide more details about motivators and enablers for the four Commuter Choice categories.
Many of these options are enumerated in the Commuter Choice Conceptual Framework shown in Figure 1. The framework suggests opportunities for affecting when, how, how fast, where, and even whether to travel on work-related trips. From left to right in Figure 1, each of the major choice options is addressed.
Figure 1. Commuter Choice Conceptual Framework
The how of commute travel deals with the variety of available transportation options and incentives for moving between home and work locations. Beneath each of the major categories under Mode Choice are some of the options available to employers that may influence employee travel behavior. Carpooling and vanpooling allow employees and family members to share a ride. Transit benefits and guaranteed ride programs may encourage employees to use public transportation, especially when parking is scarce or costly. Employers can also encourage non-vehicular travel by providing facilities that allow employees to walk, bike, or jog to work. The availability of parking and its associated costs are possibly one of the most influential factors in commuting to work. Employers providing strategies to their employees to offset the parking costs or avoid these costs all together will encourage the participation in commuting alternatives.
When employees get to work is a function of both mode and schedule. Employers that offer flex-time and alternative work schedules allow employees to plan their travel around peak commute times, thus reducing both travel time for the employee and peak period congestion for the community. Flex-time allows individuals to better juggle work and home life and thus create positive benefits for employee and employer. Additionally, employers can decrease the time required for their employees to get to and from work by cooperating with other employers in high density employment centers to jointly provide high speed express bus service to and from residential areas, shuttle buses to remote parking lots, and express lanes with express parking (e.g., closer or low cost) for employees who use commuter choices that help reduce congestion during peak periods.
Technology and land use choices affect where and even whether an employee travels to work. Employers that encourage telework, either from home or telework centers, decrease the need for commuting and the commute distance. Employers with multiple locations can encourage employees to work in locations nearest where they live by providing appropriate financial incentives and flexibility to change job locations when an employee changes place of residence. Employers can also reduce requirements for trip chaining (making a trip for more than one reason) by offering on-site or nearby services that many employees need or want on a regular basis, such as day care/dependent care, convenience stores, laundry/dry cleaning, and food service. Similarly, employers can locate work places in areas where these services already exist so that employees are able to find the products and services they need with minimal additional travel.
The commute route choice is typically the result of necessity, experience, and current information. Employees take routes that get them where they need to go (including en route stops) based on experience over time that informs them of the most efficient way to get to and from their work locations. Occasionally, the travel route changes as a result of changing needs (e.g., trip chaining) or because of information about the condition of the route (e.g., incidents, work zones, special events, weather effects). Most often, employees get information from media sources (e.g., radio traffic reports, websites) or personal communication devices (cell phones). Employers can assist employees by providing information that helps them plan travel routes specific to their individual needs and current travel conditions. Additionally, employers may assist in linking employees to other employees who travel similar routes so that they can coordinate travel routes and schedules. As on-board vehicle navigation and communication technologies advance, many of these services may become generally available, and employers can encourage their use by subsidizing subscription costs or negotiating group rates on behalf of employees.
Most of the commuter choice options and strategies discussed in these materials can be implemented relatively quickly. However, widespread and effective use of these options can be encouraged and facilitated through enablers that make them more effective, efficient, and affordable. Clearly, traveler information is a key component of most of these choices, such as periodic updates of available services, coordination between employers and employees who wish to use some of the options, providing real-time information about travel conditions, or providing custom information to specific employees in response to individual travel needs. Information dissemination can be as simple as newsletters and bulletin boards to advanced technology such as broadband wireless communications that deliver images as well as audio and text information to vehicles. The enabling technologies can provide position and navigation information and can offer decision support to optimize travel times based on individual criteria. Additionally, with electronic payment capability, travelers (or employers) can, in real time acquire travel services such as public transportation, parking, and traveler information. Financial mechanisms can encourage both employers and employees to take advantage of commute options that address employer, employee, and community objectives. These can be in the form of financial incentives (transit pass subsidies, vanpool empty seat subsidies, etc.) and disincentives (charging for parking) that reward employees for using a commute alternative. Employers can enable commuters to use more commute options by providing shuttle services to and from transit stops and/or remote parking facilities, which could increase commuting options.
As stated in Section 2, employers report a range of motivations for providing commute options to their employees. Some of the motivations are due to bottom line company operating cost factors, and other motivators relate to quality of work life issues.
The following is a list of the more commonly reported employer benefits.
Enhanced Employee Recruitment and Retention
Providing commute options helps employers recruit and retain employees. This may be especially true in areas with low unemployment or for employers in highly competitive job markets. Some firms have reported that programs such as telecommuting, compressed work weeks, and subsidized transit and vanpool fares give them an edge when hiring.
Improved Working Conditions for Employees
Companies genuinely care about the morale and work-life balance of their employees.1 Programs such as telecommuting, compressed work weeks, and flex time can make it easier for employees to juggle their personal and work lives. These kinds of programs can go a long way to fostering good relationships between employees and their employer. These relationships can have definite benefits, whether tangible or intangible, to the company.
Reduced Operating Costs
Some firms can reduce operating costs by compressing a 40-hour work week into 4 days instead of the usual 5 days, thus reducing facility operating costs. Allowing employees to telecommute can also result in a reduction of facility expenses, such as office space.
A 1998 study in Union County, NJ have reported increased productivity after the implementation of Commuter Choice measures. This may be due to a number of reasons. It could be as simple as an increased sense of loyalty to the organization on the part of the employee. It could be due to a reduction in stress from avoiding the morning rush hour or due to employees spending less time during the day worrying about how they are going to manage to leave work on time and still meet all of their personal responsibilities.
Reduced Need for Parking
From the employers perspective, parking demand is one of the main motivations for a Commuter Choice program, especially for those with limited parking. Lack of parking can be a problem for businesses located in central business districts, as well as for businesses located in suburban office parks.
Improved Public Reputation/Image
Some corporations are concerned about the impact they have on the surrounding community. Communities are increasingly concerned about the behavior of their corporate citizens. Commuter Choice represents a way for corporations to play a more community-friendly role by helping reduce traffic congestion around their worksite, giving local employees options and some degree of flexibility in how they get to and from work, encouraging employees to live near where they work, walk or bike to work, and subsidizing the cost of commuting.
Implementing a Commuter Choice program clearly contributes to an improved environment by reducing auto emissions, reducing roadway congestion, and conserving energy.
Improved Accessibility to Worksite
Another motivation is the improved accessibility to the worksite afforded by increased or improved alternatives, such as transit, bikeways, and sidewalks.
Recent changes in the Internal Revenue Code allow employers to offer their employees a wider range of tax-free commute benefits under the Commuter Choice tax benefits provisions. These programs are financial incentives to employees, usually encouraging them to change from driving alone to taking transit or vanpooling. There are several ways that the benefit can be provided to the employee. The employer can provide transit or vanpool passes or vouchers to employees tax free in addition to their existing salary. Employers deduct the cost of the benefit from their corporate income taxes. The benefit is free from all federal income and payroll taxes to the employee because the passes and vouchers are treated as tax-free fringe benefits rather than a taxable salary.
The benefit can also be provided on a pre-tax basis. In this scenario, the employees actual transit or vanpool cost up to $100 per month is deducted from the employees pay. The employer then uses these funds to purchase a transit or vanpool pass or voucher on behalf of the employee. The employees taxable income is reduced, thereby saving payroll taxes for both the employee and employer and income taxes for the employee.