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Commuter Choice Primer

An Employee's Guide to Implementing Effective Commuter Choice Programs

Section 5

Description of Commuter Choices—Time Choice


Many commuters experiment with the time that they leave home or the hours they work to avoid the worst traffic congestion. Drive alone commuters and employees using other mode options can change the when of their commute. Sometimes, changing or providing for more flexible work hours helps family members or neighbors share a ride; in other instances, the change can discourage the use of alternatives (because transit and vanpool schedules are largely set). As such, these programs need to be carefully considered so that they complement other parts of your Commuter Choice program. In any event, employees tend to prefer these options because they allow for better management of personal time and responsibilities, such as family and outside activities.


Two primary time choice options exist to offer employees starting and ending times that better fit their personal schedule: flex-time and alternative work schedules. It might be said that the 9 to 5 workday is a thing of the past. Employers and employees are finding that allowing employees to change when they commute can benefit both the employee (with reduced stress and the ability to juggle work and home better) and the employer (with less tardiness and more productive workers). Each option is defined below. More information is provided for each Time Choice Option and accompanying Employer Strategies in the CCDSS:

Flextime—Flexible work hours come in many forms. All forms allow employees to choose the schedule they work, within certain time boundaries. Some companies set core work hours, and employees can arrive and depart outside these hours as long as they work the required number of hours. In other cases, employees and their supervisors together select the work hours for each employee, based on work and personal needs. Flextime can be offered to all employees, which is commonly done. However, some research suggests that flextime available to all employees tends to break up existing ridesharing arrangements because employees no longer need to report at the same time but can facilitate ridesharing among family and neighbors because they can now coordinate schedules. If the purpose is to complement the mode options, flextime should be offered to non-drive alone employees only as an added incentive. If the goal is to allow greater flexibility for all employees to avoid traffic congestion, then offer flextime to all.

Alternative Work Schedules—Just as flextime is now very common with U.S. employers, more organizations are also implementing alternative work schedules. These schedules can include longer days with more time off or staggered shifts:

  • 9/80 Compressed Work Week—Employees work 80 hours over a 9 day period instead of 10. The typical work day is 9 hours.
  • 4/40 Compressed Work Week—Employees work a 40-hour week in 4 days instead of 5. The typical work day is 10 hours.
  • 3/36 Compressed Work Week—Common with health facilities, fire departments, and police, employees work 3 12-hour days.
  • Staggered Work Hours—This strategy can help to reduce peak period traffic at the worksite by staggering the times when employees arrive and leave work so they do not all access the site at the same time.

Compressed work weeks remove a car from the road on the days that employees are off. Employees can use alternative modes on the days they do report to work. With longer days, however, some options, such as express buses, may not be as readily available. Staggered hours can significantly reduce bottlenecks at worksite entrances by staggering the proportion of workers who arrive at any one time.


Flextime does not, in and of itself, remove cars from the road or your parking lot. It can, however, move commuters to times of the morning and afternoon that are less congested. It can also encourage employees to use mode alternatives if planned properly. Compressed work weeks do remove vehicles from the roads and parking lots on employees’ days off.

Do alternative work hour policies make sense for your worksite? One important consideration is that flextime and alternative schedules are worksite operations policies that affect everyone. Flextime often requires that meetings be confined to “core hours” of 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Compressed work weeks require that the facility has longer operating hours, which can mean higher expenses for energy, maintenance, security, etc. More important, alternative work hour policies need to fit within the nature of the business or organization. For example, staggered shifts work well with retail and some manufacturing businesses. Compressed work weeks are often implemented at government sites and offices. Flextime obviously does not work well at worksites with set schedules, such as educational institutions.

Therefore, think through the business ramifications of alternative work hours. If the nature of the business is conducive to schedule adjustments, employees like the added time it gives them to juggle their personal schedules. Before implementing a flextime program, coordinate with several departments, including Human Resources and any union groups that may be represented at the worksite.


When carefully planned, time choice options can work hand-in-hand with other options. However, as stated previously, changes in work schedule (time choice) and work location (telecommute) can actually work to break up existing carpools and prompt people to drive alone more often. Caution must be taken in implementing a new staggered work schedule. If you already have employees who are in carpools, in vanpools, or taking transit, changing their work schedules may break up these arrangements. Efforts should be made to allow some flexibility in start and stop times for these cases.

Time choice is often implemented with telework programs (Location Choice), allowing employees to work from home or other locations. Because alternative schedules require changes in work policies and worksite operations, some employers consider telework programs as part of an overall Alternative Work Arrangements policy that includes schedule and work location choices for employees.


Alternative work hour programs are popular with employees and have been popular with employers looking to reduce the number of cars entering their worksite. In Washington State, where a Commute Trip Reduction rule applies to large employers in many parts of the state, 41% of employer worksites have chosen to comply with Compressed Work Week programs.10

Staggered work hour programs can dramatically relieve traffic jams into and out of areas when coordinated among employers in a given employment center (such as El Segundo, CA, or Hartford, CT). When employers in Hiroshima City, Japan, were asked by the city to coordinate and stagger work hours in 1994, the maximum back-up was reduced from 5.8 km to 4.9 km in the first few months and down to 3 km by 1997.

Some research has also shown that alternative work hour programs that afford employee time choices do not adversely affect mode choice if implemented properly. A case study with employees in Ventura County, CA, revealed an increase in carpooling from 8% to 13% during the implementation of flextime and 4/40 and 9/80 compressed work weeks. More important to the employer, employee productivity and job satisfaction went up. Employees were better able to coordinate child care responsibilities, shorten their commute times, and even save money.11

There are several tools to help estimate the potential cost and benefits for a specific worksite. EPA’s website 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.


There are many good examples of alternative work schedules because the options are fairly common in the United States. What is interesting are the perceived and real benefits that both employees and employers experience.

Matsushita Kotobuki (Vancouver, WA)

Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries of America manufactures combination TV/VCRs under several brand names. In 1994, the firm implemented compressed work weeks for all its employees. Workers can work 4/40 (Monday–Thursday) or 3/36 (Friday–Sunday) schedules. When considering the program, the General Manager estimated that the program would save the company 15% in annual utility costs (for reduced production on Fridays), would increase productivity by 10%, and would allow for more overtime potential. Matsushita Kotobuki’s Production Manager said, “Moving to compressed work weeks was a smart decision. It helped increase productivity and decrease absenteeism.” By having two workforces (Monday–Thursday and Friday–Sunday), they have almost doubled their production capabilities. Overall, managers and supervisors report that morale is up and stress is down.12

The Bon Marché (Seattle, WA)

Although variable work shifts are very common in the retail business, they are not as common in other types of work. However, as many as 80% of headquarters workers at the Bon Marché have flexible schedules, and half of its staff are on compressed work weeks. Because headquarters staff are at the site of the Bon Marché’s downtown Seattle flagship store, compressed work weeks create more parking for shoppers. The firm introduced these employee benefits as a recruitment and retention tool in 1996 in a “hot” job market. Its research suggested that work hour options were third in prospective employee priorities after salary and medical benefits. A Senior Vice President of Human Resources said, “We’ve invested a lot in our people. When we offer work options, it’s not totally unselfish. We know it results in more loyalty and less absenteeism.”13

Defense Supply Center (Columbus, OH)

The Defense Supply Center Columbus (DSCC), a military supply facility, offers its almost 2,500 employees Commuter Choices. In addition to flexible work schedules that stagger employee start and stop times, DSCC subsidizes vanpools and transit passes, provides preferential parking for carpools and vanpools, and provides information on all alternative modes. By participating in a Commuter Choice option, employees are given the opportunity to earn work hour credit to be used for additional days off.14

ARCO Products Company (Bellingham, WA)

Some 95% of ARCO’s Cherry Point Refinery employees use flextime or compressed work weeks. Most production workers work 3/36 work weeks, and engineering staff work 9/80 work weeks. The company does not cite improved morale and reduced absenteeism as benefits, but the decrease in downtime to transition from one shift to another is seen as a major plus. The refinery also has a single two-lane access road on which traffic congestion has been reduced with flexible schedules. ARCO is so impressed with the results at Cherry Point that it is expanding the compressed work week program to its corporate offices in California.15

Educational Testing Service (Princeton, NJ)

Educational Testing Services develops and processes standardized student tests (including the SAT). When developing its Commuter Choice program in 1995, ETS asked employees and supervisors which options might benefit both the organization and workers. As a result, compressed work weeks, flextime, and telework were implemented as part of a more comprehensive ECO-Motion program. About 25% of ETS’ almost 2,500 employers are on a compressed work week. The use of 4/40 and 3/36 schedules seems to suit employees in the data center and customer service, where more coverage during the day is a benefit to ETS. When asked, almost half of participating employees said that the time choice option has improved their personal productivity as a result of the longer day.16


  1. Use Flextime as an Incentive—Flextime can be used as an incentive for employees to use an alternative mode, such as carpooling or transit. In other words, those who are using alternative modes are also allowed to work flexible hours.
  2. Work to Maintain Alternative Mode Use—When implementing compressed work weeks, work with employees who currently carpool or use the bus to maintain those modes on the days they report to work by providing information and even incentives.
  3. Think Through the Impact on Operation—When considering flextime or compressed work weeks, think through the added hours of operation and the need to implement core hours. Management should not view these programs as disruptive, rather they should be able to observe happier, more productive employees.
  4. Ask Employees—A quick survey of employees may help to determine the type of schedule flexibility that makes the most sense. Different employees will have different personal needs, such as child care or school, that will affect their work schedule.
  5. Offer More Than One Option—Because some employees may not want to or be able to work longer days, flextime or staggered shifts might be offered to some employees and compressed work weeks to others.
  6. Consider Implementing by Department—Some functions within an organization (manufacturing, customer service, etc.) may not be conducive to schedule flexibility.
  7. Check with Neighbors—When staggering hours or changing to a longer work day via compressed work weeks, make sure that the new schedule does not conflict with the schedules of neighboring employers. A lack of coordination could result in worse traffic jams, not better.
  8. Include During New Employee Orientation—Explain the work schedule options to new employees, but encourage their consideration of mode options as well.
  9. Adopt a Specific Policy on Work Hours—Because work hour programs affect the operation of the organization, very clear and specific policies and management support are needed to assist employees and supervisors to understand and make use of the options.
  10. Re-evaluate the Program—After 6 months or a year, poll employees and supervisors to see if the program is working to everyone’s satisfaction. Hours and policies may have to be amended to make the alternative schedules work best.
  11. Comply with Federal and State Guidelines—Work with Human Resources to make sure that the alternative work program complies with federal and state labor laws.

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