Commuting program entices employers

Carpooling service, discount passes provide relief from traffic, parking
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/13/2012

Located in a fairly urban setting, surrounded by urban sprawl, Laurier University has a limited amount of land to expand on. And with a student population that has doubled in size in the last decade, space is at a premium.

“Our campus is growing like crazy but we really don’t want to be growing our parking lots because we consider that to be a waste of prime land development,” said Claire Bennett, sustainability co-ordinator at the university in Waterloo, Ont.But we also have to appease students, staff and faculty, so we’re really trying to find other options.”

One option includes a partnership with TravelWise, a Transportation Management Association that provides tools and services to employers with the aim of reducing the number of people driving alone to work. Developed first by the Region of Waterloo six years ago, the initiative has expanded to partner with employers across the region to combine resources and offer discounted transit passes, emergency-ride-home services and carpooling matching and reporting.

Benefits for employers include improved access to “the best and brightest employees,” increased employee retention and morale, reduced facility costs and positive corporate exposure, said TravelWise.

“We’re a little region that’s thinking about big city problems before they happen,” said John Hill, principal planner, transportation demand management, for TravelWise at the Region of Waterloo in Kitchener, Ont.

“We really want to head off traffic congestion, that’s the regional perspective, we want to build transit ridership… and for our private sector partners, they want to have better employee retention, they want to provide real transportation choice to employees and a big one for them financially is to reduce parking demand.”

How it works

As part of the program, employees have access to an online carpooling service. Each TravelWise organization has its own ride-matching site where employees can register and create a profile. They can then search for a suitable matching commuter at their place of employment or one of the 12 other employers involved, such as Equitable Life, the City of Kitchener, Open Text, Research in Motion or the University of Waterloo.

“People using the same system can go on, see if they find a carpool and if they’re a regular cyclist or transit user or walker, they can record their trips on the same site. It gives them a sense of how many litres of fuel they’ve saved over time, what their impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is,” said Hill. “So that helps us really sell the program or show the benefits of the program to regional council, to city councils and to the employers who have partnered with us.”

Employees also have access to discounted transit passes for Grand River Transit (GRT). They can purchase three-, six-, nine- or 12-month passes with discounts ranging from five per cent to 15 per cent, depending on the length of the pass, which is delivered to the employee’s desk.

“(We) make it easier for them to acquire them, make them cheaper for them to purchase,” said Hill.

When TravelWise employees begin to carpool, use transit or commit to active transportation as an alternative way to get to work, they are also eligible for an Emergency Ride Home program and can request reimbursement of up to $75.

“That’s an insurance program for people who have to do overtime or have a family emergency and they need to get home fast, so we’ll pay for their cab ride home,” said Hill.

“Oftentimes, it’s people’s last resort. They’ll call on family or friends first… but it’s good to have that there and it reduces a barrier to people not bringing their cars to work.”

A few years ago, law firm Miller Thomson established a national environmental sustainability committee and since three of its offices, with about 215 employees, are located in the Waterloo region, the TravelWise partnership made sense, said Trevor Nkiwane, Miller Thomson’s director of administration for southwestern Ontario in Waterloo, Ont.

“We just thought it was an innovative way to offer options or alternatives to the staff and to the lawyers with different ways to get to work and also to think more about their driving habits,” he said. “We thought it was a good program that we could try and get people thinking about change and ways to be more environmentally conscious when it comes to their transportation.”

This kind of initiative absolutely will help when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, he said, especially since many recent university graduates don’t have a car. And parking in the area is very busy, he said, so that’s another reason employees are interested.

“If they can find a way to share the cost of coming to work, whether it’s by carpooling or using the new discounted transit passes, I think they’re definitely interested in that.”

Getting the word out

When an employer joins TravelWise, the association surveys its employees to find out about their current travel behaviour and who’s interested in alternatives. About 50 per cent usually respond and draw prizes are used as incentives, said Hill.

The association then asks employees if they want to receive more information, such as maps or fare guides, and if they fill out a form they also receive some kind of reward.

“We try to keep the reward as practical and useful as possible, so in the winter we give the choice of a collapsible water bottle, an umbrella and gloves. In the warmer months, we invite participants to choose either an odometer, umbrella or water bottle.”

Once TravelWise has the employee information, it can start tailoring messages to employees according to their commuting preferences. A designated employee at the participating employer also helps post and distribute information.

“(Individualized marketing) allows us to target employees who are specifically interested in using sustainable transportation,” said Hill. “The real key is making it habitual and helping them along the way and encouraging them so that’s why we have these other programs and continuous outreach during the year, to keep active transportation in people’s minds.”

The association also gives out prizes and giveaways and holds events such as an annual commuter challenge.

As of 2010, 58.2 per cent of Laurier’s employees drove alone to get to the university while 13.8 per cent carpooled, 11.9 per cent walked, 10.6 per cent biked and 4.7 per cent took a bus, according to Bennett. With students, 45.6 per cent walked, 24.3 per cent drove alone, 18.6 per cent took the bus, 6.6 per cent biked and 4.9 per cent carpooled.

So the TravelWise program is important “because getting staff and faculty to make these big life changes is going to be a bit of a hurdle,” she said. “It really is a well thought-out program — I’m really impressed.”

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