Bustling with Capitol Hill staffers, startup hopefuls, and foreign diplomats, Washington, DC is a true melting pot of cultures. Boasting wide sidewalks and shaded parks, DC ranks in the top ten most walkable cities in the US. At the same time, the greater Washington region ranks number two for the worst traffic in the country.
From the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and every street in between, DC drivers lost an average of 155 hours sitting in traffic in 2018. Because of these glaring issues, the local government is working with developers and employers to implement transportation demand management regulations.
Transportation Demand Management?
If you’re not well-versed in city planning initiatives, here’s a crash course in transportation demand management or TDM. TDM is the effort, outside of infrastructure, to instill a behavioral change in the way employees use available transit methods when commuting.
Does your company have a shower available for employees who bike or walk to work? That is a TDM effort your company is making for its employees. A new bike lane added to the street in front of your office, on the other hand, would be a change to infrastructure. The overall goal of TDM is to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road daily.
What is DC doing to change?
The District of Columbia has initiatives in place to help employers and employees choose alternative methods of commuting. In effect since January 2016, the DC Commuter Benefits Ordinance requires companies with 20 or more employees to provide commuter benefits to their employees.
Just offering the required benefits isn’t enough, however. In order to make a marked difference, the employer has to make a real effort to inform employees about available options and encourage them to participate.
Although DC, Maryland, and Virginia get grouped into a general area (the DMV), they’re not required to follow the same regulations. Companies like Marriott, which is headquartered in Bethesda, MD, are not required to offer commuter benefits, even if their employees live in DC proper. On the other hand, companies based in DC have to offer commuter benefits to employees who live in the surrounding states.
Although not yet in place, the DC Council has set aside almost $500,000 in their recent budget to study the impact of charging tolls (known as congestion pricing) in highly congested areas of the city. These charges could also hit commuters who cross the border into DC from either Maryland or Virginia. These measures aren’t a new idea.
London implemented similar tolls in 2003 and have seen significant changes. The number of private vehicles that entered the toll zones during peak hours fell 39% between 2002 and 2014. What’s more, the number of cyclists traveling through central London rose 210% between 2000 and 2016.
Congestion tolls aren’t a new concept for the area. In 2017, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) implemented tolls for solo drivers on I-66 express lanes between U.S. 29 in Rosslyn to the Capital Beltway. These tolls are active during morning rush hour into the city and again during the afternoon rush hour leaving the city. Although the tolls are predictably not a hit with drivers, traffic times in the area dropped anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes compared to the previous year.
What can I do?
Your employees can be commuting from areas far and wide, with access to multiple modes of transportation or none at all. Keep this in mind while deciding on your TDM strategy, making sure to accommodate as many people as possible.
Some employees might have to drive to work because of lack of access to transit options, whereas some might just do it because they feel they have to — and that’s where you can make the difference. Employers can make driving a tougher decision for some employees by implementing a pay-per-day parking policy. This changes the equation from “I have to take advantage of my monthly parking space” to “Is it worth my time and money to drive today?”
Unfortunately, charging employees parking by the day is not always an option. In 2017, a bill was introduced to the city council that would require employers who offer free parking to offer transit benefits or a cash-out option for employees who don’t drive to work.
Regardless of whether this is required, companies should consider implementing this into their company transit policy. In addition to significantly reducing the number of solo commutes, policies like this improve morale because employees perceive it to be more equitable.
DC has great public transit options, but employees who don’t live near a Metro station can’t do much with pre-tax benefits. Offering a fully subsidized option, such as a private company shuttle or vanpooling service, not only complies with the DC Commuter Benefits Ordinance, but expands the number of employees who can leave the car at home.
Some employees are fortunate enough to be able to walk or bike to work, depending on weather conditions. As DC residents have recently experienced, temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer months. Due to these extreme temperatures, employees might opt for an air-conditioned car to avoid arriving to work uncomfortably sweaty. Installing a shower at the office will ensure employees can restart and refresh before starting their day.
Is there a penalty?
In leading cities such as Seattle, companies are required to meet certain quotas and maintain TDM goals. A company with more than 100 employees has to appoint an Employee Transportation Coordinator (ETC) to liaise with the city. On top of that, every two years, companies must submit their TDM program report for approval and conduct employee surveys to measure their commuter drive-alone rates.
Although DC doesn’t have mandatory quotas for employers to meet as far as TDM requirements, that does not mean they are free of potential penalties. Failure to comply with the DC Commuter Benefits Ordinance can result in fines, as well as additional inspection and hearing costs, if an issue gets that far.
With a job market as robust as DC’s, losing out on top talent could be more of a penalty than any fine the city could charge you. An employee’s day doesn’t start when they get to the office — it starts when they leave to get to the office. If they’re consistently showing up frustrated because of their commute, they will start to think about finding a job that’s less of a hassle.
What information is available?
The Washington Area Bicyclist Association offers a wealth of information and inspiration to make your office bike-friendly. The first thing on their homepage is an interactive map of current and future bike lanes, protected bike lanes, and trails. They also provide classes for adults to learn how to safely ride in the city. Offering this information to your employees — or even sponsoring a lesson or ride — could be the turning point in their decision to become a bike commuter.
So, what’s the point?
TDM is not a fad to make companies and cities to feel like they are making a difference. Single-occupant vehicle commutes need to be reduced as much as possible for cities to be sustainable. The truth is, most people don’t enjoy driving under traffic conditions or for commuting purposes. Employees will change their commuting habits if they are offered viable alternatives to driving.
Providing commuter benefits is a great start, but just doing the minimum isn’t going to make a real impact. Offering a reimbursement program for employees who use scooters or bikesharing companies to get to work will make people think twice about getting behind the wheel. Even going a step further and paying employees who walk to work could significantly alter their commuting habits.
There are so many options that can be offered, so it’s all about finding a balance that will work best for your company and your employees. Conducting an employee survey or organizing an internal transit taskforce with input from several teams could help you find what makes the most sense for you!