Chicago-area employers unlocking gridlock through Commute Options - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Chicago-area employers unlocking gridlock through Commute Options

Photo by Ryan Griffin-Stegink

Panelists at MPC's Dec. 1, 2011, Commute Options roundtable (from left): Jeffrey Rehm of W.W. Grainger; Suzanne Carlson of Chicago Public Schools; Gabe Klein of the Chicago Dept. of Transportation

On Dec. 1, MPC hosted a roundtable on Commute Options, Better Commutes, Less Congestion: Employer Unlock the Region’s Gridlock. More than 80 attendees heard from area employers and the City of Chicago about what they are doing to provide workers with alternatives to the all-too-typical grinding commute.

MarySue Barrett, MPC’s president, and Stacey Reineking Sather, senior vice president and director of public affairs for Charter One Bank, the event’s sponsor, provided opening remarks.  Barrett gave a brief update on the Commute Options pilot program in metropolitan Chicago, which MPC is leading in partnership with Civic Consulting Alliance. As of Dec. 1, nine employers are participating in the pilot, through which MPC works with employers to survey their employees about their commute habits and frustrations, and then designs a custom incentives program to encourage more of them to get out of their cars and into a better commute. In addition to W.W. Grainger and Chicago Public Schools, both of which gave remarks at the roundtable, the other participating employers are Champro Sports, Christopher B. Burke Engineering Ltd., Goose Island Beer Company, Labelmaster, Loyola University, Robinson Engineering, and Underwriters Laboratories. What’s notable is that these employers are based in the city and suburbs, range in size from 10 employees to nearly 2,000 employees, and include people working in offices, educational institutions, as well as manufacturing and warehousing environments. In other words, Commute Options programs can work for a range of employers! Barrett also pointed out that the Commute Options pilot program is advancing regional strategies,  including getting 19,000 cars off the road (a goal of the Chicago Climate Action Plan) and encouraging more people to take transit (one of the “regional indicators” identified by Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 plan.)

Joseph Costello, executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) in Chicago, moderated the panel. Jeffrey Rehm, corporate sustainability manager at W.W. Grainger in Lake Forest, spoke about the challenges Grainger employees face in commuting to Lake Forest, and Grainger’s reason for becoming involved in the pilot. Grainger surveyed employees at four Chicago-area locations: the Lake Forest headquarters, and facilities in Lincolnshire, Niles, and Northbrook. For the initial pilot phase, they focused efforts at the Lake Forest headquarters, as it has the most employees. In addition to promoting available Commute Options – including Pace RideShare, Metra, and shuttle services – to employees at a Commuter Fair in June, they re-marketed pre-tax commuter benefits and established preferential parking spaces for registered carpool participants. 

Grainger’s survey also identified a challenge faced by employees who commute by Metra: a lengthy trip from both Lake Forest Metra stations to the office. Grainger partners with other employers in the Conway Park Office Park to provide shuttle service. This service uses school buses, and due to Grainger’s location at Conway Park, Grainger’s employees were the last to be dropped off in the morning, and first to be picked up in the evening, resulting in a long ride to the train station. To help employees who choose transit go the “last mile” more quickly, Grainger conducted a three-month pilot using a coach bus to shuttle Grainger employees only. Ridership increased 30 percent, and employee satisfaction increased 100 percent. Grainger is now evaluating how to make a dedicated shuttle a permanent option in 2012.

Suzanne Carlson, director of environmental affairs for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), described their efforts to implement Commute Options programs at three of their sites. CPS is the second –largest employer in the City of Chicago. Approximately 1,000 employees work at their Central Office, located next door to MPC’s offices in downtown Chicago. While this site is well-served by public transit, 29 percent of employees drive to work due to the availability of reasonably priced parking and/or job requirements. Two schools also are participating in the pilot program: Abraham Lincoln School in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and Al Raby High School in East Garfield Park. Al Raby High School is within walking distance to the Conservatory CTA Green Line Station, and offers free parking. Lincoln Elementary School is near multiple CTA bus and train lines, and offers limited parking at a nearby church.

The Commute Options survey showed that CPS staff were willing to consider alternatives to driving alone if barriers they identified to commuting were addressed. At Central Office, the issue of staff needing to travel to schools during the day is being addressed by remarketing a shuttle. Other programs being considered include  having shared CTA cards available for employees who travel to schools, implementation of a car-sharing program, and incorporating transit in expense forms (to make it clear employees may reimburse for transit expenses as well as parking). CPS also held a Commute Options Fair at Al Raby High School in late October , and is planning a similar fair for Lincoln Elementary School in early 2012. Carlson also discussed CPS' Employer-Assisted Housing (EAH) program, which provides down-payment assistance to help teachers purchase their first home in the City of Chicago. She noted that CPS could consider exploring its EAH program to determine the potential of providing incentives to staff and faculty who buy a home near work or transit.

Gabe Klein, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Transportation (CDOT), spoke about the progress and challenges Chicago has made in addressing transportation and Transportation Demand Management (TDM) issues. The city has a well-established and growing network of protected bicycle lanes, 24-hour CTA service, improved focus on pedestrian programs, and an integrated network of streets for all users. However, Chicago-area traffic congestion remains a costly and frustrating problem for commuters and businesses alike.

That’s why the city continues to explore new solutions to mitigate congestion and improve travel options for residents and visitors, including exploring innovative infrastructure investments such as Bus Rapid Transit. Klein said the city also plans to roll out its own TDM program in 2012 to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips and provide personalized travel information to interested households, so they know their options. He added that this program will be linked to a larger TDM strategy being developed by CDOT, as well as to regional efforts such as the Commute Options program.

Want more? A complete recording of the roundtable will be available soon on MPC’s web site, thanks to a partnership with Chicago Amplified, a program of WBEZ Chicago.

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