How Do I...Help Reduce Traffic?

Small businesses, like many businesses, are looking for ways to trim costs while attracting and retaining employees. Some firms are thinking of new ways to encourage workers to take public transit as a means to ease traffic congestion, curb stress and reduce greenhouse gases.

Many cities and counties offer incentives to businesses that encourage energy-efficiency programs, including tax breaks and cost-sharing of some programs.

For example, the City of Alexandria is educating businesses about the benefits of telecommuting, mass transit, carpool and car sharing.

The city hired Urban Trans Consultants, a small firm based in Denver that does a lot of business in the Washington, D.C., region, to spearhead its Local Motion program.

"Oftentimes businesses have issues about employer recruitment and retention," said Alex Block, a planner with Urban Trans who works with Alexandria. "They're trying to present a greener work ethic and image and a lot of people want to know how to reduce costs like providing parking spaces," for employees.

They also want to know how to offer the best benefits to employees without breaking the business bank account. Urban Trans works with firms to help them understand transportation options for their worksite. Any businesses based in Alexandria can discuss transportation strategies and options with the firm at no charge.

The consultancy first administers a survey of a business's employees. "We don't want to make assumptions on what programs would work best," said Block, who asks employees basic questions like "where do you live" and "how do you get to work" to determine which kinds of benefits a company might want to focus on to help and retain employees. For example, "if a company says 'I don't have enough parking spaces for all of my workers', we can help them figure out alternative plans," said Block.

Here are some transportation suggestions for businesses to consider:

1. Take the metro. If a business is located near a metro, that's an obvious strategy to try and push, said Block. Business owners should start thinking of ways to help employees who don't live near a metro station. Bus service might be an option. Block also said that many employees are surprised by carpool opportunities that become available once a business determines which neighborhoods workers live in. An employer also can offer SmartBenefits through the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority, or WMATA. SmartBenefits is a Web-based program that allows employers to load the dollar value of employees' Metrochek commuter benefits electronically onto their SmarTrip cards. SmarTrip is accepted on most public transit systems in the region including Fairfax Connector, DASH and Loudoun Country Transit.

2. Transit incentives. A business also can set up a pretax transit deduction. It allows an employee to specify a monthly, pretaxable amount to pay toward public transit. "There's a substantial savings annually in taxes not paid," said Block.

3. Telework. If teleworking makes sense for a business - it may not be viable for a retail store for example - there are great programs through Virginia. Telework VA offers substantial reimbursement for equipment leases and telework center space. It also offers technical assistance to help businesses set up networks so employees can work from home. Additionally, there is a reimbursement of up to $35,000 for qualifying businesses through the Virginia Department of Public Rail and Transportation. "Telework can help limit your costs by limiting your need to expand office space, it reduces commuting pressure and there's a reduction in greenhouse gases," said Block. He recommends that a business, even a very small business, set up a formal policy or guidelines that specify who qualifies for telecommuting privileges.

4. Commuter Connections. It's a database full of ridesharing opportunities that extends beyond Loudoun and Montgomery counties. The program experienced a record 184 percent increase in ridesharing applications from June 2007 to June 2008. In the first seven days the new web-based system was available, nearly 3,000 people registered for the free service. Urban Trans' initial workplace survey helps determine which employees live near each other to offer possible carpooling options.

5. Biking. Block said a recent trend is for businesses to promote the health benefits of certain kinds of transportation. A business might want to provide bike racks and showers at their workplace, for example, so that employees can bike to work. For some businesses that may mean deciding between offering a gym membership and biking facilities. "I've seen a lot more people on bikes these days in business attire thanks to gas prices going up," Block said.

6. Car sharing. Businesses could consider encouraging the use of car sharing. The City of Alexandria will cover part of the ZipCar membership fee for Alexandria businesses and it offers other incentives for car sharing.

7. Guaranteed Ride Home program. It offers eligible commuters a free ride home from work under special circumstances like personal or family emergencies or unscheduled overtime.

By Sharon McLoone |  October 9, 2008; 2:52 PM ET How Do I...
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These are all great ideas. I particularly think it is time for small business to give serious thought to getting rid of the bricks and mortar office. Here are some of my thoughts at the Water Cooler.

Posted by: Bob Poole | October 13, 2008 12:13 PM

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