Why Green's Good

Commuter programs prove beneficial to the environment and good for business in terms of recruiting, retention and engagement. HR just needs to make a better case for them.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017
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On any given workday, many of the 2,700 employees at Intuit's corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., will have driven their cars on the crowded US-101 to work. The global technology company neighbors Google, which operates about 200 employee shuttle buses every weekday, and is housed in a business park that only has three ways in and three ways out.

"We had people calling saying we need better solutions," says Tom Harrington, global commute solutions leader at Intuit, which has 7,900 employees in 11 countries. "All over the world, we were running into traffic problems."

Nationwide, many large employers in congested cities have developed commuter programs that help employees get to work on time and less frustrated, and back home in time for dinner. More than 300 organizations -- both public and private -- have been named on the Best Workplaces for Commuters list, managed by the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.

Although commuter programs may fall outside the scope of HR, some employers say this national recognition is part of their hiring and retention strategies. So whether HR professionals actually develop and oversee these subsidized benefits, which range from discounted bus passes and vanpools to free shuttles and bicycles, or simply help promote them to employees, they offer an effective way to grab, engage and retain skilled workers.

The BWC program was initially launched by the Environmental Protection Agency and Dept. of Transportation in 2000, says Julie Bond, senior research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research and BWC program manager at USF. But when the program lost federal funding, the agencies searched for a new home.

"We took over the program back in 2007 because we really believed in what [it] was doing, and wanted to take what [the agencies] had done and further it," Bond says. The NCTR added a membership fee to help the program stay afloat and to offer promotional materials and educational support on commuter-tax benefits. "Transportation is a big thing. Getting to work is a really big part of our workday," says Bond.

Saving Time, Money, Earth

Intuit considers its BWC membership to be a huge plus, not only as a great source of recognition, but also as a way to further brand itself as an organization that provides high-level benefits for commuters, says Harrington.

"This reduces traffic congestion [and] our carbon footprint, and supports better land-use policies," he says, adding that if more people participate in alternate transportation, fewer parking spaces are needed. "In Mountain View, we also have a trip cap imposed on us. To avoid financial penalties, a certain number of single-occupant vehicles can only enter and leave our campus in peak commute hours each day."

The company's program is elaborate. Introduced roughly 15 years ago to U.S. employees, it initially offered bus riders a $75 monthly, pre-taxed transit subsidy. While that amount increased to $100 last August, other transportation alternatives have since been developed for many of its 6,500 U.S. employees, Harrington says.

One reaches out to bicyclists. In 2013, the company leased a fleet of $700 bicycles to employees for three months in some areas such as Mountain View. The only rules of the still-existing program are that employees must wear a helmet when riding to work and self-report their activity online in order to renew their bike lease for another 90 days.

Another 80 bikes are available for employees to use around campus. So are four cars that can be driven to meetings, nearby restaurants for lunch or office-supply stores, Harrington says, adding that the company handles all expenses, including gas. Some corporate employees also pay $50 per month (after their $100 transit subsidy) for Ridepal, which consists of luxury, public buses with wifi and bike racks that travel along four dedicated routes and also take advantage of free, last-mile shuttle services to and from train and bus stops operated by MVGo, a service of the Mountain View Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit organization focused on improving multimodal transportation.

The commuter program grew to include fully subsidized vanpools in 2014, which are fully subsidized at Intuit's corporate headquarters. Harrington says the company pays for the van rental, gas, wifi and maintenance. But at other locations, participating employees each receive $100 to help offset some of these costs. Riders can also trade off driving the van for personal use on weekends -- up to 200 miles per month per van.

So far, the company supports 27 vanpools, all in California, each with five to seven riders. And anyone can walk away with a 30-day notice.

"The requirement is that you have to ride an average of three days per week if your vanpool is fully subsidized," Harrington says, adding that this policy ensures Internal Revenue Service compliance with vanpool benefits. As part of the program, "people have to self-report every trip on Zimride by Enterprise, an online ride-sharing matchmaker [service]," he says. "We get this as accumulative data and see if it matches what people self-report."

If participating employees suddenly need to leave work, the company guarantees five rides home per year via three options: Take a cab and get reimbursed; set up direct billing between Intuit and transportation companies such as Lyft, or have a rental car delivered to their worksite free-of-charge.

The company's program covers most transportation modes. Just last year, it handed out more than 650 free CalTrain annual passes.

Harrington says roughly 20 percent of Intuit's global workforce participates in these programs. The biggest groups of that 20 percent work at its headquarters and offices in Bangalore, India (50 percent of workers participate in a round-trip shuttle program that's fully funded by Intuit and other local employers), and Edmonton, Canada, where an estimated 10 percent of employees are fully reimbursed for public transit.

Although his department operates under Workplace Services, which is part of finance, transit subsidies come out of HR's budget. Still, Harrington hopes HR will enhance its partnership with Workplace by purchasing additional bikes as part of HR's fitness program.

"This could be a big global program and big help if HR was willing to expand the fitness benefit to include bikes," says Harrington. "I've even volunteered to provide a list of bikes that would be used if they were allowed under the fitness benefit. We could do more if we had more money available for folks."

More Awareness Needed

More employers are giving commuter benefits additional attention and funding, and are assigning them greater value in their benefits programs, says Elizabeth Hughes, president at TDM Specialists Inc., a transportation specialist in San Francisco that promotes ride-share opportunities throughout northern California.

Although commuter programs offer multiple benefits for employees, such as lowering auto-insurance premiums and providing up to $125 a month in pre-tax dollars, HR professionals may not know how to develop or manage them, she says. Some don't make a strong enough case to senior executives that this is a low-cost benefit with high returns.

According to TDM surveys, employee recruitment and retention are the top two reasons why HR implements commuter programs, followed by reducing traffic congestion, she says. But like with any other HR program, it must be consistently promoted.

"Communication does require some type of management, care and feeding," says Hughes, adding that many companies post program information on their intranets. "Mix high-tech with low-tech delivery. Put up an easel in the lobby and post the bus schedule or bike path. . . . People will get engaged."

While recently helping one company improve its program, she advised the commuter manager to contact all new hires within two weeks of being on the job about how the program may help them. Harrington says program participation jumped by 17 percent that year.

At the Mayo Clinic -- with three main locations in Phoenix; Rochester, Minn.; and Jacksonville, Fla. -- at least 25 percent of its 65,000 U.S. employees participate in its commuter program, which has evolved since 1980. The medical practice and research group was added to the BWC list in 2009, says Jamie Schmitgen, chair of Mayo's talent solutions.

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The company pays each employee up to $80 per month for public transit; offers on-site motorcycle spaces and bike racks; sponsors five park and ride lots and free bus rides from those locations to its Rochester campus; offers vanpools in Phoenix, charging riders a $45 monthly fee; and transports 4,000 employees for free each weekday from its Rochester campus to nearby Mayo facilities. The company also shuttles healthcare providers for free from its Rochester campus to facilities in outlying cities and offers a free taxicab ride home for commuters when family emergencies arise.

Schmitgen says the biggest challenge is keeping employees informed about commuter options. While the company's general-services department oversees the program, he says, HR's role is to promote it to job candidates by featuring it on Mayo's intranet, in the employee newsletter, and during interviews and new-hire orientations in which employees receive a free 20-ride bus pass.

"We've gotten past the question, 'Should we do this?' " he says, adding that people's lives can change so much that commuter programs can never be over-communicated. "For organizations challenged with downtown parking, think more broadly about how you get people to work. It also fits our sustainability approach, that we're doing the right thing for the environment."

Bike Racks to Charging Stations

Offering green programs for employees also ranks as a priority in Verizon's corporate culture. Back in 2013, the Basking Ridge, N.J.-based global telecommunications company kicked off its national commuter program. Since many of its offices are located in residential areas, a biking program seemed like a natural fit, says Jillian Kessler, sustainability project manager at the company's Boston office, who oversees the U.S. commuter program.

"We saw a big opportunity here," she says, adding that the program was piloted at one of its offices in Bellevue, Wash. "We [later] started installing bike racks at many of our administrative facilities and built an internal sign-up system where employees can log [the] hours and distances of their commutes."

While the company has 162,000 employees worldwide, about 1,150 at 180 locations -- mostly in the U.S. -- now participate. When employees log 500 biking miles, Kessler says, they win a free Verizon-branded jersey.

In 2014, the company expanded the program's options. As co-founder of the U.S. Department of Energy's Workplace Charging Challenge, it had committed to increasing its footprint of electric-vehicle charging stations in the country significantly over the next decade.

Its first charging station was installed at one of its offices in Little Rock, Ark. Now, there are 36 nationwide, including a solar-powered station in Silver Spring, Md. The company plans to increase that number to 50 by 2018, says Kessler. So far, 250 employees across the country participate.

Since 2014, the program has expanded and now includes Verizon Commuter Connections. The carpooling program uses Zimride software to connect Verizon drivers and passengers with similar commutes. More than 1,700 employees in 125 locations nationwide have signed up.

Up to now, Kessler says, HR has played a limited role in the program. Besides informally promoting it to different functions throughout the organization, it also introduces the program to job candidates and new hires, and invites the six-member sustainability team to showcase the program at HR fairs held throughout the country.

Likewise, the sustainability department partners with employee-communications staff across the company -- not just in HR -- to post program information on the company's intranet and produce an internal newsfeed and calendar featuring green stories, and educational and volunteer opportunities. Employees also engage in online interactive quizzes devoted to green commuting and participate in monthly "green-bag" lunches in which guest speakers promote the program.

"We're striving to get as many people involved as best we can," says Kessler. "The goal for Verizon is to enable our employees to live our mantra -- 'Work Green, Live Green.' We're trying to give them things they can do at home and in the office that make their lives greener overall."

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