In Transit

Corporate Commuter Plans Can Cut Costs–and Hassles

Every morning, if you're like 75 percent of American workers, you face gridlocked highways for your solo drive to the office. Why? Because you think that the alternatives, like the train, bus or a car pool, will take money out of your pocket, or just be downright inconvenient.

But doubling, tripling or quadrupling up for the ride to work is an obvious answer to high fuel consumption, traffic congestion and smoggy skies. It also cuts down on the amount of time you have to spend behind the wheel, and it's a neighborly way to start and end the work day. But the great American commuter car pool is in trouble.

Illustration: Gridlock

The high point of car pooling was, not surprisingly, the fuel-shortaged 1970s, when, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an amazing 25 percent of American workers shared rides. By 1990, partly because of record low fuel prices, that figure had dropped to 13 percent, and it's expected to drop even further—to only seven or eight percent—by 2000.

In 1991, in an effort to meet provisions of the Clean Air Act, Congress passed a federal highway bill that required big companies to reduce their percentage of solo drivers. Companies that ignored the mandate or lied about meeting their quotas faced fines of $25,000 a day. But howls of protest from commuters and corporations alike caused the law to be repealed in 1995, before it was much observed. Even without federal mandates, however, employees can take advantage of lucrative and subsidized company plans.

Today's efforts are mostly voluntary. More and more companies are willing to financially subsidize the intrepid few who choose to leave their cars at home. American corporations have to do something because, since the energy-conscious '70s, the trends have been mostly bad. Americans are driving two trillion miles a year, double that of 20 years ago, and average fuel economy continues to get worse, to the point that the vehicles going into junkyards today are more fuel-efficient than the shiny new ones in the showrooms. In the 1970s, the U.S. sucked up 75 billion gallons of gasoline a year. Today, it's more than 100 billion gallons, half of it imported.

The problem isn't simply that no public transportation is available. Suburban Fairfield County, Connecticut, for example, has some of the worst highway traffic in the U.S., while enjoying good rail service and even an embryonic ferry operation. The problem is how to get people out of their cars. Connecticut officials are struggling to reduce the load on interstate highway I-95, already at three times its design capacity, and one approach is a recently implemented rail fare-reduction program. A “Smart Ride” program offers discounts on video rentals, movie tickets and restaurant bills for carless commuters. But will 15 percent off the bill at Taco Bell get people onto trains?

Taking the Van

One Fairfield County company, Stamford-based Clairol, has 60 of its 850 employees riding in four company-supplied passenger vans, and there's no denying that they're getting a good deal, plus a trouble-free ride. According to Bill Andersen, Clairol's manager of security and employee operations, riders pay $28 a month to take the vans in a program that is heavily subsidized by the company. “We would probably have more people taking part, but we have three shifts a day in what is a combined manufacturing, research and world headquarters operation,” says Anderson. “It's hard to coordinate schedules.” He agrees that a guaranteed ride program, ensuring that nobody gets stranded at work, would probably be an incentive.

One cost-effective European solution to auto congestion is the car co-op, in which a large group of drivers shares the use of a small motor pool. In Berlin, Germany, for instance, the Stattauto service has 14 lots around the city, and users make reservations and pick up keys in safe-deposit boxes. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, helped launch a similar co-op in Northern California last November. “The evidence from Europe suggests that car co-ops, by locating near bus and rail links, dramatically increase transit use and save people money, too,” Sperling says. “It's not a panacea, but it helps.” In addition, some corporations subsidize commuters who take public transportation, evening up the score with workers who enjoy the benefits of subsidized parking spots (which cost companies an average of $10 per spot per day).

According to the Road Information Program, congested roads in the largest 25 urban centers cost commuters $43 billion annually in wasted time and fuel costs. All those idled workers, frantically trying to make business calls on their cell phones, are unproductive drains on American business. Voluntary plans, and private enterprises like the car co-op, make a good deal of bottom-line sense. But they won't work unless commuters use them.