Turning the Corner: How Employers are Helping Staff  Green Their Daily Commute

Employers continue to seek new and innovative ways to help their employees be happier and more productive. Of universal concern in large metropolitan centres throughout North America today are the economic, environmental, and social impacts of our car-oriented culture. Around 75% of employees regularly commute to work alone via private motorized vehicle [US Census Bureau News, 2007; Statistics Canada, 2006]. 

Employees are feeling the effects of growing traffic congestion, rising gas costs and declining air quality in cities and suburbs and employers are beginning to take the lead in turning this commuting trend around. Combined with growing public concern over climate change and leading business’ increasing emphasis on corporate social responsibility, these issues are pushing ‘greening’ transportation to the forefront of environmental efforts by governments, NGOs, institutions and businesses. 

Green business practices are quickly becoming a valuable recruitment and retention tool for leading employers; however, providing green transportation options at workplaces is still a frequently overlooked component.

“Smart Commute” is both a movement and an organization. The movement encourages individuals to adopt green options for commuting to work such as cycling, walking, transit, and carpooling. The organization engages workplaces to act as agents of change through customized transportation programs for their employees. Workplace programs empower individuals to reduce their eco-footprint and build their social network, improve health and well-being and save on transportation costs. Employers benefit from a more competitive hiring package, greater productivity and team building with happier and healthier employees, reduced parking infrastructure costs and experience many other related advantages.

Smart Commute’s workplace activities in partnership with Greater Toronto Area (GTA) employers have helped switch 10,000 drive-alone commuters to greener modes. This change has meant less congested roads, and reduced air emissions including 17,400 fewer tonnes of Greenhouse Gases. Workplace commuting programs like those of Smart Commute help turn employees’ commuting experiences into a green model of success.

You guessed it: a green workplace commuting program does not come in a one-size fits-all package: The key is to be innovative and include customized elements that meet the needs of your workplace. Generally though, the following steps will give your workplace a solid start:

1. Bring together a group of enthusiastic employees, who will dedicate time and energy to this initiative. This “Green Team” has a mandate to lead the implementation of green commuting practices and programs and could be the same team that looks at, for example, the workplace’s waste, water and energy components. This team would benefit greatly from a partnership with local commuting program specialists, like Smart Commute, who can provide expertise and support on program development, implementation, and promotion.

2. Assess your workplace’s existing transportation subsidies and infrastructure and pay attention to what modes of commuting they support. How much employee parking is there and is it free? Are there preferred parking spots for people who carpool? Remember: Free parking supports employees who drive alone and discourages the use of transit, cycling, and walking, particularly if incentives to use these other greener modes of travel are not offered in conjunction. Look at supports for cycling, walking and taking transit: Is there secure, covered bike parking for employees? Are there shower and change facilities? Are there incentives to take transit such as discounted passes for employees? Are there transit stops close to the workplace with connection to rapid transit such as a subway? 

2. Survey employees to determine how they are commuting to work, what their interest is in other modes of commuting, and what would facilitate a switch from driving alone to green commuting modes. A workplace survey could be done online or in hard-copy. Results would give a baseline picture of the workplace in terms of commuting trends, and provide ideas on in-demand green workplace commuting programs.

3. Based on survey results, implement key workplace programs that focus on addressing challenges consistently faced by commuters. There are many programs that employers can consider: The key is to be innovative and offer what best addresses employees’ commuting challenges while making smart use of employer resources. Set goals, for example, 5% reduction in drive-alone commuters over 3 years, and track results with streamlined follow-up surveys.

•    Carpooling: Offer ride matching on-line to help employees find carpool matches.  In the GTA, Carpool Zone (www.carpoolzone.ca) is a popular program offered to workplaces that partner with Smart Commute and currently has 5000 registrants. Carpool Zone features Google Maps, route-based matching and enables employees to indicate carpool partner preferences such as language, non-smoking, weekly driving schedules, and much more.  To further support carpooling, employers can implement preferential parking spots for carpoolers, and other incentives such as monthly prize draws to encourage this commute mode.

•    Vanpooling: Similar to carpooling but bigger! Starting a workplace vanpooling program can be ideal for helping groups of employees who commute long-distances to share the ride.  In Toronto, Smart Commute’s partner Enbridge Gas Distribution currently has 6 vanpools carrying up to 9 employees each from areas throughout the GTA.  This program has enabled the company to save $40,000 (CAN) annually in parking costs and provide a popular employee benefit.

•    Car-Sharing: Becoming a member of a car-sharing network provides employees access to by-the-hour rental vehicles. Car-share vehicles can be used throughout the workday for meetings, errands, and other activities - helping employees to take transit, carpool, walk or cycle to work.  In Toronto, car-sharing companies such as Zipcar have vehicles situated throughout the city and will consider locating vehicles near a specific workplace if high daily use can be identified. 

•    Transit: Transit subsidies for employees helps reduce the purchase price of their monthly transit fare—a small discount that goes a long way to encourage employees to take transit. Subsidies can be provided by an employer, transit agency, or both. For example, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) offers a Volume Incentive Pass Program to employers who agree to make a bulk purchase of transit passes on a monthly basis—employers are able to pass on the savings to staff through a discounted transit pass.

•    Active Transportation—Cycling and Walking: Simple improvements to cycling and walking infrastructure in and around the workplace can provide a significant incentive to use these modes: Examples include implementing covered, secure bike locking facilities, well lit and clean walkways and shower and change facilities. Employers can additionally provide cycling and walking subsidies, in the form of cash and/or prizes to level the playing field between cyclists, walkers and those who benefit from free parking or transit subsidies. Workplace walking guides are also easy to create but useful for encouraging employees to walk to local eateries, malls, banks and other locations within a 10-minute walk.

Remember: Employee incentives and promotions for using different commute modes combined with improved infrastructure supporting these modes, as described above, is the most effective way to transform the commuting culture at your workplace into a green model of success. 

This article was excerpted from PR News Employee Communications Guidebook. It was written by Brian Shifman, executive director of Smart Commute and Jennifer Lay, its program coordinator. To order this guidebook or find out more information about it and other guidebooks, go to www.prnewsonline.com/store.