CityFixer

How Washington State Convinced Big Companies to Dramatically Reduce Drive-Alone Commutes

The state's Commute Trip Reduction program is a model for the nation.

Image Oran Viriyincy / Flickr
Oran Viriyincy / Flickr

Brian Lagerberg, the director of public transportation at the Washington State DOT, recalls a conversation he had with a large employer in the mid-1990s. The state had recently adopted a law directing big companies to encourage alternative, non-car commutes among workers. In the process of complaining to Lagerberg that he didn't know anything about transportation, the employer mentioned that his company had just bought enough land to create a parking lot for 1,400 vehicles.

"I'm thinking: 'That's a transportation service—you are in the transportation business,' " says Lagerberg. "That was just a conceptual gap people had. 'No, we're just doing this for our employees.' Well, that affects their behavior. You're telling them if they drive their car, you will store it all day. You weren't saying to them, we'll take that same amount of money it's costing us and give it to you to ride the bus or walk and be healthier."

As much as people may think they're free to make their own travel choices, the truth is employers have an enormous influence over how their employees get to work. Office location is a big part of that decision, for sure, but it's not all of it. Research has found that companies in areas served well by public transit can still nudge people into cars with parking benefits, and that commuters are never more open to new modes than when they start a new job (or when their company moves).

Washington has arguably done more than any state in the country to acknowledge these behavioral realities with its Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) program. Now nearly 25 years in, the program has helped the state reduce drive-alone commutes—especially in the metro Seattle area—and by extension traffic congestion, car-related pollution, and energy use. It's also accomplished its goal of convincing employers they're in the transportation game after all.

"The decisions made by the employers prior to the program, which focused almost exclusively on providing parking, is part of the transportation system," says Lagerberg. "What we've tried to do is change that perspective so it's a much more balanced perspective."

Big Gains, Small Costs

Adopted into law in 1991, CTR targets big employers in heavily populated areas, requiring them "to implement programs to reduce single-occupant vehicle commuting by employees at major worksites." (Washington defines big employers as those with more than 100 workers, though some local governments compel smaller companies to make similar efforts.) State agencies provide assistance and oversight, but companies are free to design whatever commute shift plans make most sense for them.

Washington DOT

Some employers go with fairly standard programs to reduce car commutes: flexible work and telecommute options, parking fees, enhanced transit pass programs, and favorable carpool incentives. But the relaxed oversight has also led to some innovative initiatives, including mortgage discounts to move closer to work, money to furnish a home office, and straight up cash to quit driving. Vanpools have also become quite popular, with Washington now home to the largest public-sector operation in the country—some 2,800 vehicles and 22,000 daily riders.

CTR has met its initial goals of "reducing automobile-related air pollution, traffic congestion, and energy use," and more. The latest progress report found that between 2007 and 2012, the rate of driving alone among CTR participants fell 3 percent and vehicle miles declined 4.6 percent—huge figures extended across 1,100 worksites and two-plus decades. The shift is more impressive when placed against trends toward higher drive-alone rates at non-CTR companies, as well as the rest of the nation, over the same period:

Washington DOT

Those benefits come at very little public cost; the program only gets about $6 million in funding every two years. The return on that modest investment is that there are fewer cars on the road during rush-hour, which means less need to build highways as well as to maintain them down the line. The big lesson, says Lagerberg, is that building roads is only one way to make more space for cars—you can also use the roads you do have more efficiently.

"Back in '91, the state said we need to engage in how the system's used, not just building the system," he says. "The idea was we ought to be indifferent as to how we provide capacity. We shouldn't care whether that's more roadway capacity or reducing demand for that capacity."

Traffic Savings in Seattle

In Seattle, says Lagerberg, the CTR program has "taken on a life of its own." An analysis of program impact, published in the Journal of Public Transportation in 2007, found enormous mobility benefits along Interstate 5 heading through the city. By comparing CTR programs of 189 employers against traffic conditions that would have existed without these plans, the study authors report savings in terms of congestion, travel delay, vehicle speed, fuel use, and carbon emissions.

The reduction of vehicle delay during the morning rush-hour on I-5 alone was on the order of 152,489 minutes for CTR-worksite commuters (below, shown via squares) relative to a non-CTR scenario (triangles):

Labib Georggi et al (2007), Journal of Public Transportation

More recent data confirm the program's impact on city traffic. In February, the Commute Seattle group reported commute shares for the city based on surveys from nearly 50,000 employees at CTR worksites, as well as 1,500 employees at non-CTR companies. Only about 31 percent of Seattle commuters now get to work in a single-occupancy vehicle (below, inset)continuing a downward trend that goes back to 2000, when that share was closer to half.

Commute Seattle

Non-CTR employees have made more recent progress than those involved in the program: single-occupancy vehicle commutes fell by nearly 8 percent for non-CTR workers, compared with a slight rise for CTR employees. That's perhaps a sign smaller companies have implemented their own commuter programs, though CTR employees still have a lower single-occupancy commute rate, 28 percent to 33.5 percent. Large Seattle employers still have the least car-reliant commute mode splits:

Commute Seattle

Recent official figures offer further evidence of progress: the program has reduced congestion by 8 percent in the Central Puget Sound region, compared with what it would have been, according to the state's official 2011 CTR report. That doesn't mean traffic is great in Seattle—many residents will argue just the opposite. But it does suggest that without the CTR program, highway congestion would be far worse.

Working Toward Obsolescence

Washington State commuters get a daily reminder that the CTR program isn't perfect. Officials would prefer drive-alone and VMT reductions to be even greater than they are. While rush-hour commutes get lots of attention, they're actually the minority of all daily trips, leaving lots of room for improvement other times of the day. A stronger analysis would show just which employer strategies have been most effective over time, and push for others to adopt these best practices.

Lagerberg says the state is continually trying to improve the program, and that in some respects it's constrained by the transit system, which suffered in Washington like the rest of the country during the downturn. The latest official CTR report requests a big budget increase—up to $10 million a year—to expand the initiative. "We are significantly changing the program, again, based on the lessons that we have learned," he says.

Future improvements aside, there's one measure of progress that speaks to how far the program has come since Lagerberg had to justify it to employers in the early years: companies are now spending their own money to shift employee commute patterns. For every dollar in public funds spent on CTR to date, employers have spent $18, according to the 2013 official report. That's the case even though Lagerberg says a "good faith" effort is generally sufficient to escape punishment by the state.

That trend suggests organizations realize that shifting commute patterns creates a private benefit beyond its impact on the public road network. The University of Washington, for instance, estimates that its U-PASS program to encourage non-drive alone trips has saved the school $280 million in parking construction and freed up $73 million worth of land for other facilities. Lagerberg recalls one state lawmaker recently asking him if the CTR program was even necessary anymore, since companies would surely now enact similar programs on their own.

"That's our long-term vision," he says. "How do we create something that fades away because the behavior change and the culture change exists to support? In some sense we're working toward planned obsolescence of our role in this."

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