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Commuter Choice Primer

An Employee's Guide to Implementing Effective Commuter Choice Programs

Section 8

Summary of Choices—What Works?


The range of Commuter Choices was described in detail in Sections 4–7. But do we know what works best? In this section, we try to answer three basic questions:

  1. What are the most effective Commuter Choice options?
  2. What other strategies are effective?
  3. What can supporting organizations to do to help?

To answer these questions, we look at some of the research that has been conducted on employer Commuter Choice programs.


Research into alternative commuting options consistently points to financial incentives and disincentives as one, if not the most, useful and cost-effective employer Commuter Choice options. Financial incentives include mode-specific subsidies (such as transit pass subsidies and vanpool fare subsidies), parking cash-out, subsidized parking fees and tolls for alternative modes, and general subsidies for all commute alternatives. Financial disincentives include parking charges and any fees targeted to drive alone commuters (tolls, etc.). Financial incentives and disincentives are often used to influence non-work trips as well, including parking pricing for large events and discounted transit tickets for visitors or shoppers.

One study of 58 pilot projects in southern California concluded that:

Financial incentives/disincentives are the most consistently effective and cost effective group of projects.32

Commuters are very smart consumers. When faced with an economic choice (as opposed to lifestyle or environmental concerns), some commuters will switch modes to save on the cost of driving and to receive a “benefit” in the form of a subsidy. Nominal financial subsidies (on the order of $1–2 per day) can cause commuters to shift modes or location. Financial disincentives for driving should be accompanied by incentives for using alternatives so that drivers have something less costly to switch to. A popular misconception about Transportation Demand Management (TDM) is that it takes many years to persuade commuters to learn about, think about, and ultimately change modes. However, financial incentives and disincentives create almost overnight changes in behavior as commuters make rational economic decisions.


A recent study conducted by researchers at the Washington State Department of Transportation summarized the research on which measures are effective in reducing drive alone commuting. Summarizing several earlier studies, they concluded:

These analyses suggest that telecommuting, compressed work weeks, financial incentives, financial disincentives, programs and incentives for biking and walking, and guaranteed ride home programs are likely to be related to change in driving alone commuting.33

After analyzing employer strategies and other variables, the researchers concluded that charging for parking, allowing telecommuting and flexible work hours, providing a guaranteed ride home, maintaining access to transit, and adding subsidies for walking showed a significant association with greater reductions in the drive alone rate.

Based on this conclusion, one might conclude that the following strategies are also effective at switching drivers to alternative modes but to a lesser degree than financial incentives and disincentives:

  • Employer-supported telecommuting program
  • Compressed work weeks
  • Flex-time (especially for non-HOV commuters)
  • Bicycle and walking programs
  • Guaranteed ride home (GRH) programs

This suggests that so-called Time and Location Choices, non-motorized commute modes, and GRH programs should be supported and encouraged in addition to financial incentives for alternative modes and disincentives to driving alone.

One national research study that compares the offering of various types of employer-provided Commuter Choice strategies was conducted for the Transit Cooperative Research Board.34 Data from almost 50 employers throughout the United States compared the percent reduction in cars for various types of commute alternative program types. The average “trip reduction” among these widely perceived successful case studies was 15.3% (at an average cost of about $0.75 per one-way trip reduced).

The study results are as follows:

  • Programs that only provided information on commute alternatives realized a 1.4% increase in trips (meaning they were unable to stem the general national trend of increasing drive alone rates).
  • Employer TDM programs that emphasized the provision of the alternatives themselves (such as vanpools) realized an average trip reduction of 8.5%.
  • TDM programs that focused on financial incentives and disincentives (such as transit subsidies and parking pricing) realized an average 16.4% trip reduction.
  • Employers that combined both enhanced alternatives (e.g., vanpool provision) with incentives or disincentives (e.g., vanpool subsidies) realized an average trip reduction of 24.5%.

These results suggest that information alone is ineffective at changing commuters’ travel behavior. However, when commuters are made aware (perhaps most effectively through their employer) of enhanced alternatives and incentives for using them, some commuters will switch from driving alone. It also suggests that financial incentives alone are not as effective as when they are combined with the necessary alternative to driving alone and a means for employees to learn about the alternatives and incentives to use them.

The following overall conclusion is offered here:

It’s what you do to influence commute behavior (strategies/incentives) more than how you market the program or how much you spend.35


Now that the more effective Commuter Choice strategies have been discussed, what about the support programs that are being implemented or supported by public agencies?

Ride matching is one clear example of such a support program. The regional ride matching database frees employers from having to implement their own process and provides access to a larger pool of applicants to match. Because a significant proportion of the shift from driving alone is to carpooling,36 the matching services are vital. Research in Los Angeles showed that about half of carpoolers rideshare with co-workers and another half rideshare with family, friends, or neighbors.37 Research in Washington, DC, revealed that almost half (48%) of drive alone commuters said one reason for not carpooling or vanpooling was not knowing anyone to ride with.

Carpool matching is clearly more attractive when potential users are offered a financial incentive. In California’s Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, an alternative mode subsidy is offered to drive alone commuters who commit to rideshare at least 1 day per week. A $2 a day subsidy is provided via a partnership between the public sector and employers for up to 3 months. The intent is to get drive alone commuters to try an alternative mode. A majority of commuters (almost 90%) continue to share a ride after the subsidy expires, and more than half are still ridesharing 1 year later.38

To assist you in determining what Commuter Choice strategies would work best for your worksite, go to the CCDSS and complete the Interactive Guidance Tool.

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