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Commute Options pilot proving need for permanent Transportation Demand Management strategy in Chicago area

Walk, bike, take transit, or even roller skate -- the Commute Options pilot is helping employers help their employees drive less to work.

In late 2010, MPC rolled out a one-year Commute Options pilot, to help local employers design incentives that encourage their employees to drive less and try “alternative” commutes, such as transit, biking, carpooling and even walking. A little more than a year later, based on the interest we’ve seen from a variety of employers, we believe this pilot is demonstrating the need for a permanent Transportation Demand Management initiative in the Chicago area. Our thinking was reinforced in April, when the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) Board voted to approve a one-year contract with MPC to continue to study Commute Options as a potential solution to increase transit use among area workers.   

So far, the Commute Options pilot has attracted 12 employers, representing a mix of city and suburban locations and ranging in size from 27 employees to more than 2,000 employees. Discussions are underway with several more employers, and recruitment will continue through late spring /early summer 2012. Participating employers have told us Commute Options not only helps save their employees time and money on their commutes, but also helps achieve corporate sustainability goals. Here’s what some of them have had to say:           

“As a company that is dependent on natural resources and energy, we are always trying new ways to lower our impact on the environment. When we can wrap in our employees, it helps us not only reach our environmental goals, but also helps our employees make a direct contribution to those goals.”
Tony Bowker, Chief Operating Officer, Goose Island Beer Company 

“Grainger is a leader in offering customers the solutions they need to maintain their facilities in a sustainable manner. We are equally committed to reducing our impact on the environment. We are delighted to pilot a program that offers more convenient commuting options to our team members while contributing to a better environment in Chicago.”
Gail Edgar, Vice President, Corporate Facilities Services, Grainger

Employers aren’t the only ones realizing benefits from Commute Options: Before we recruited even one employer, we formed a providers group comprised of representatives of RTA, Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, Pace, and local environmental, transportation, and advocacy groups such as Active Transportation Alliance and I-GO car-sharing.  This group meets several times a year to discuss various issues impacting commuting in the Chicago area. They have been instrumental in reviewing various transportation demand management (TDM) models that exist in North American metropolitan areas, as well as in encouraging RTA to investigate next steps toward developing an institutionalized TDM strategy for the Chicago area.  

Commute Options: What’s ahead in year two

More challenges lie ahead in year two of the Commute Options pilot. Since the pilot began, we have found that awareness – whether of what services exist for employees, or of what outside incentives and services employer can tap to help employees with their commutes – is a major issue, regardless of the size or location of the employer. Compounding the issue, most of the provider organizations – from transit service providers to private and nonprofit groups like I-GO and Active Trans – have limited outreach staff covering wide geographic areas, in many cases the entire Chicago metropolitan area.  In spite of these awareness issues, as fuel prices rise, employees continue looking for alternate ways to get to work besides driving alone. 

To address these realities, the providers group will work with RTA to establish a regional TDM strategy for the Chicago area.  What’s more, even as MPC continues to recruit the remaining pilot employers through early summer, we will conduct “post surveys” with employers who joined the pilot in late 2010 and early 2011.  This will be a two-part process: Employees will complete a “post survey” designed to analyzed how many employees changed their commute behavior as a result of the pilot and the incentives initiated by their employers; and we also will use metrics such as those developed by the Best Workplaces for Commuters to measure other impacts of the Commute Options pilot, such as improvements to regional air quality improvement and employee behavior – hopefully further proving the need for a regional TDM strategy in the Chicago area.

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