MOVING FORWARD | It might be up to you to see that we have a choice
While teleworking is here to stay for more Americans than ever, most workers — and especially those with lower incomes — will still be required to physically go to their place of work.
However, we need to stop driving to get there.
To ensure that drive-alone commuting ceases to be the dominant commuter mode, we must demand better commuter benefits from our bosses, and our employers must demand better transit and active mode infrastructure from public agencies. But first, workers must be aware of what we can ask for, and why it is in the best interest of our employers to provide it.
In 2017, the transportation sector represented 42% of Multnomah County’s local emissions, or slightly more than the commercial and residential sectors combined. Much of this total is the product of Portlanders driving their own cars to work every morning and home every evening.
That’s because for many Portlanders, driving to work is not a choice but a necessity born out of a sprawled, decentralized job market; transit designed as a last resort mode; and employers who have historically not cared about how employees get to work so long as they do.
Unfortunately, public policies that could reshape this setup are lagging behind. At the moment, the primary statewide regulatory lever pushing employers to lower their single-occupancy vehicle rates is the Department of Environmental Quality’s Employee Commute Options, or ECO, program, which requires employers with more than 100 employees at one worksite to provide “commute options that have the potential to reduce employee commute auto trips by 10% within three years of its baseline survey.” However, failure to achieve a 10% reduction is not a violation so long as the employer makes a “good faith effort.”
Jenny Cadigan, the program manager at Oregon Health & Science University’s transportation and parking department, said this regulation lacks teeth in the form of a “real penalty” for not lowering an employer’s single-occupancy driving rates.
This is a problem, and more regulation is needed, but luckily regulation is not the only thing causing employers to rethink commuter habits. Luckier still, employees could hold another lever to reduce single-occupancy vehicle rates if they only knew to look for it.
As it turns out, drive-alone commuting is not just costly for workers (who must pay to own, store and maintain a car), agencies (which must maintain an underfunded road network overburdened by those cars) and future generations (who will wonder why we sacrificed our planet to maintain this expensive, dangerous and unpleasant way of commuting when so many other options were available). This setup is also costly for large employers, who often have to build and maintain their own parking supply along with dealing with other negative externalities associated with widespread drive-alone commuting, such as the adverse health effects it has on their employees.
Some of the largest employers in the Portland metro region have caught on that a system in which the substantial majority of employees commute by single-occupancy vehicles is not working for anybody, and they have formed transportation demand management, or TDM, teams or have started offering commuter benefits to address it. These employers are spread across the region and include OHSU, Portland State University, Port of Portland, Adidas, Daimler and Providence Portland Medical Center.
At its most basic, TDM is about managing the demand for commuter modes — from cars to transit and biking — to better match the supply of parking spaces an employer can provide. The fewer people who drive to work, the less strain they put on parking, which can cost more than $21,000 per space to build in Portland.
Employers have two core strategies to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuter rates: make driving less appealing by eliminating car subsidies like free parking, and make it more appealing to get to work another way by offering other commuter benefits. These benefits might include things like subsidized transit passes, cash for a new bike or e-scooter, onsite showers for active commuters or teleworking options.