Updated: Sep 24, 2019
The Commuting Context
Commuting in the greater Boston region has never been as time consuming as it is today. In several key travel sections, travel times have increased more than 50% between 2013 and today, and congestion occurs not just at rush hour but throughout the day. Political leaders frame these challenges as typical of a thriving economy, while transportation advocates attribute them to a lack of planning and public transportation investment to meet the needs of a growing workforce.
MassDOT Recommendations, Including Requests for Employers
The August 2019 MassDOT congestion report makes ten recommendations for improving Greater Boston commutes. These range from reinventing bus service to encouraging transit-oriented housing development and calling on employers to provide more commuting support. Two of the recommendations are directed at employers; MassDOT is hoping employers can 1) increase their transportation demand management (TDM) efforts and 2) grow teleworking to help more employees avoid commuting altogether. See pages 90 and 92 of the report for more details.
How can Employers Best Support Staff with Commuter Benefits?
Employers can choose from among many TDM solutions, from transit subsidies to vanpool/carpool programs with prioritized parking and compensation for those who bike and walk to work. Which of these options should workforces prioritize today to get the most return, in the form of happier and more productive employees? We sought the opinions of our Green Streets Commuter Challenge participants in April 2019, and also surveyed our workplace ambassadors to find out what commuter benefits are already being offered.
Many of our large workplaces already offer a range of commuter benefits, including a T pass subsidy and facilities for active commuting such as bike rooms and showers. Our participants appear to be well covered with over 80% having access to an MBTA bus/subway subsidy, over 70% offering active commuter incentives and almost 100% saying they provide facilities for active commuting. Many of our participants, however, expressed that they found these benefits insufficient, particularly the T and bus subsidy. For survey respondents, the T and bus subsidy was the commuter benefit most in need of improvement, with almost half desiring a better subsidy from their employer. Fortunately employers appear to be recognizing this need and several have increased the subsidy to 50% or higher since April.
The following is a summary of the data we collected in our February 2019 Employer Survey and April 2019 Participant Check-In Question of the Month.
Another benefit participants seem to find lacking are incentives for active commutes. Most employers offer $20 a month to those who cycle to work to cover the cost of bike maintenance, a holdover from a federal program. This amount is minimal compared to the $265 a month employers often provide employees for parking or transit vouchers, commuter highway vehicle fares and/or commuter parking fees. Some employers in our group are leaders in providing less common active transportation benefits. For example, Syros Pharmaceutical gives employees who choose to walk or bike to work $75 a month; Takeda Pharmaceuticals provides $150, and NMR Group gives staff a Bluebikes membership in addition to a fully subsidized T pass.
We looked at desired commuter benefits based on the respondent's primary mode (in a multi-modal commute, the “primary mode” is the mode of the longest leg, in minutes). Not surprisingly, those who rely on the T most to get to work every day are more likely to want a better T subsidy, compared to cyclists and drivers. The chart below shows that 70% of T riders desire a better T subsidy and 60% of commuter rail riders want a better commuter rail subsidy.
In addition to better T subsidies, over 40% of T and commuter rail riders want to see better active commuter benefits and over half of bus riders want better active commuter benefits. Our data shows that a majority of transit commuters record a walking leg when they log their commute and 6% of commuter rail riders incorporated cycling in the work commute they logged in April. Employees use multiple modes to get to work and their commuter benefits should support their multi-modal approach. Today staff are typically presented with the option of electing either the transit subsidy or the parking benefit or the active commuter benefit. Through conversations with staff in the workplace, we know that many would opt for a benefit that covers a mix of modes.
The third most desired commuter benefit, currently available to fewer than half of all employees, is a flexible work schedule. Being able to arrive outside of the typical morning rush hour would reduce commute times and alleviate the stress that comes with a workplace-imposed start time. Commuters who rely on the commuter rail or their cars were the most interested in a flexible work schedule and the option to telecommute from home at least once a week.
The results from our surveys seem to indicate that employers would do best to concentrate their TDM funds on three or four items from the laundry list of typical TDM programs. Based on our survey, we recommend that employers focus on providing 1) better T/bus subsidies 2) active transportation benefits that reward walkers and cyclists in ways that are more fair when compared to benefits for transit riders and drivers and 3) flexible work schedules and permission to work from home at least one day per week.