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Commuter Choice Primer

An Employee's Guide to Implementing Effective Commuter Choice Programs

Section 7

Description of Commuter Choices—Route Choices

DESCRIPTION

Commuters are creatures of habit. They usually travel to work at the same time, with the same mode, to the same place, and via the same route. However, as delays increase on our highways, commuters often wonder if there are other routes to take to avoid the congestion. This congestion can be caused by traffic accidents, bad weather, road construction, or even just increasing traffic that causes more delays and longer commutes. Some travelers will experiment with other routes or find out about a “secret” way to work by word of mouth. In a well-publicized story from Boston, commuters who found these secret routes around a major highway reconstruction project would not tell reporters for fear that everyone else would start using the route and eliminate any time savings.

However, advances in information technology make up-to-date advice available to commuters on alternative routes. This information on accidents, weather, recurring congestion, or other delays can be delivered to the commuter at home (TV traffic reports), in the car (radio traffic reports or in-vehicle navigation systems), at the workplace (on the PC or fax), or even via pagers, cell phones, or palm tops. This same technology, and the ability to constantly monitor highways, also makes available “real-time” traffic information on where, when, and how severe traffic jams occur. Most of the information is provided directly from the information source to the commuter. However, employers can play a role in facilitating the exchange of information and make employees aware of alternative routes. Route choice strategies give employees options on which way to travel to work.

OPTIONS

Real-Time Commuter Services—Employers can facilitate the provision of real-time commute information to employees in one of several ways:

  • Provide Traffic Alerts to Employees—Employers can provide e-mail alerts of major accidents or weather-related delays, including suggestions of alternative routes (see University of Pittsburgh example). This information can come from transportation agencies (such as a Traffic Management Center) or from traffic information providers (such as providers to TV and radio stations).
  • Support Information Kiosks—Employees can also get information from kiosks located in building lobbies or transportation centers. Although few employers offer kiosks, several large multi-tenant buildings and government buildings provide traffic information kiosks that show current traffic jams and can provide users with interactive information on alternative mode, routes, and related services.
  • Inform Employees of Services—Employers can also educate employees on the availability of the growing number of real-time traffic information providers. Many services provide alerts and alternative routes for those who register commute information with the service (see TrafficBee.com example). In San Diego, a real-time traffic information service is linked to the public radio website, and employees throughout the region are encouraged to visit the website before leaving work.
  • Advanced Route Planning—Employers can provide personalized route planning to new employees, those seeking alternative routes, or all employees when relocating to a new site. This latter practice is quite common. In order to retain valued workers, some employers provide extensive mode and route planning services to employees who must find new ways to get to work. Ongoing route planning services can become part of an employer’s comprehensive Commuter Choice program. Computerized route planning tools make this function relatively easy (e.g., software or on-line services such as Mapquest).

CONDITIONS AND BARRIERS

Route planning and information services seldom cause changes in mode (although they can during long-term reconstruction projects), but they can affect employees’ time choice and make the commute less stressful for all employees, including drive alone commuters. Because Commuter Choice is aimed at improving the “quality of the commute,” route choice can benefit all employees to some degree. Perhaps the greatest barrier is simply getting employees to access and use the information provided and act upon it by changing the route, time, or mode with which they commute.

EMPLOYER STRATEGIES AND SUPPORT SERVICES

Employers should integrate route and traffic information into their overall Commuter Choice program, at a minimum, to make employees aware of information providers in the region. Specifically, employers can provide e-mail updates to employees when major accidents or weather affect a primary commute route. Employers can also place (or allow public agencies to place) information kiosks in building lobbies. Some of the traffic and route information sources may be available for a fee. For example, in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area, the Personalized Traveler Service is provided to individual commuters for a fee via cell phone, pager, e-mail, or fax. Employers could subsidize these services or arrange information for all employees through private providers.

SYNERGIES WITH OTHER CHOICES

Route choice can benefit employees who want to drive alone and alternative mode users equally. It can also benefit those using location choices on the days they report to work. Real-time traffic information can clearly benefit those using time choices to opt for different times or routes to avoid traffic jams, accidents, or routes that worsen in bad weather.

KNOWN EFFECTIVENESS AND COST EFFECTIVENESS

Far less research has been conducted on employee responses to travel information than the other choices included in this document. However, information from a few regional “advanced traveler information systems” can be reported:26

  • A survey of 2,000 users of Boston’s “SmarTraveler” information services revealed that 14% had changed their departure time and 12% reported changing their route as a result of the information.
  • In a survey of commuters in Seattle, where a “Smart Trek” traveler information system has been implemented, 29–36% of respondents reported that traffic messages frequently influenced their commute choices.
  • Finally, a survey conducted by the DOT inquired about the conditions under which travelers would consider changing routes. Some 20% of respondents said they would change their route of travel if they received information that a delay of 15 minutes or more was expected.

There are several tools to help estimate the potential cost and benefits for a specific worksite. EPA’s website www.commuterchoice.gov provides a calculator that allows employers to estimate financial savings (e.g., taxes, parking facilities, employee turnover) and the estimated traffic and air pollution that can be eliminated by implementing Commuter Choice strategies.

EXAMPLES—ROUTE CHOICE

Examples of employer-provided route information are not widely available. More common are examples of route and traffic information sources that are available to commuters and can be promoted by employers.

EMPLOYER EXAMPLES

University of Pittsburgh Ride Share Program (Pittsburgh, PA)

The University of Pittsburgh, located in a built-up area, can only accommodate about half of its employees and students with parking spaces. An extensive Commuter Choice program is in place to offer options to those traveling to the campus area. One key element of the University of Pittsburgh’s program is an e-mail alert service that goes to more than 300 registered recipients. Alerts are provided for ongoing construction delay and for accidents or weather problems as they occur. Pittsburgh commuters travel on a number of bridges and tunnels, and real-time information on closures or major tie-ups can allow Pittsburgh employees and students to seek other routes.27

Northrop Corporation (Pico Rivera, CA)

In the 1980s, the Northrop Corporation expanded its operations and relocated employees from several facilities in the southern California area to a new facility in another part of the region. Management was concerned about employee retention as well as recruiting highly qualified employees in the very competitive market area. One of the solutions was to provide a comprehensive commuter transportation program as a company benefit. The program offered subsidized commuter bus service, vanpools, and carpools. Prior to the move, all employees were given a personalized “ridematch” list providing all of the options for traveling to the new worksite. Ridematch lists were based on where an employee lived and offered information about potential carpool and vanpool partners as well as transit route information. Northrop’s commuter program was highly successful at retaining and recruiting new employees, and on any given day, it was estimated to reduce parking demand by more than 500 spaces a day.28

INFORMATION AVAILABLE TO COMMUTERS

SmarTraveler (Washington, DC, Region)

A consortium of public and private organizations in Washington, DC, called Partners in Motion, joined forces in 1997 to launch a regional traveler information system. Today, the SmarTraveler service is available to commuters to learn about “real-time, route-specific” highway, transit, and rail service conditions. Travelers can access this information by telephone, cell phone, or Internet. Users enter a route code that corresponds to major travel corridors in the region. This information is also available on kiosks located at transportation centers and federal office buildings.29

Microsoft My Car (Seattle, WA)

A new service for MSN subscribers provides current traffic information to either a user’s personal computer or cell phone. My Car gathers information from various sources, including the Washington State Department of Transportation, and supplies it in a format that can be displayed on a variety of devices. Traffic alerts are delivered to the user when requested. My Car can be tailored to report on traffic in certain areas and at certain times of day.30

TrafficBee (Los Angeles, CA)

A partnership of Southern California Rideshare and CeloView LLC created TrafficBee.com, an individually customized interactive traffic and transportation information source on the Internet. This free service requires users to register and provide basic information on their commute route, times, and mode. TrafficBee then provides alerts via e-mail when problems occur on that route so that commuters can make changes to get to their destination. TrafficBee also offers services to employers to alert vanpool drivers, provide information to new hires, and provide information to employees without Internet access.31

TOP FIVE TIPS—ROUTE CHOICE

  1. Learn Sources of Information—In order to inform employees, you should research public and private sources of traffic information and route planning.
  2. Provide Route Information to New Hires—In addition to providing mode, time, and location choices at new employee orientation, provide new hires with route planning assistance.
  3. Provide Link to Traffic Website—Provide a link on any employee websites to regional traffic information sources. Many of these services include real-time information on accidents and delays.
  4. Include Route Planning in Any Employee Relocation—When planning any relocation of employees or an entire worksite, include route (and mode) planning services for employees to ease in the transition to a new site.
  5. Publicize Information—Let employees know about information sources available by publicizing it in employee newsletters, bulletin boards, e-mails, etc.

    To determine if any of these Route Choice strategies would work for your worksite, go to the CCDSS and complete the Interactive Guidance Tool.
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