Commentary: Employer commute programs should be part of Denver’s air quality solutions

Cityscape and highway with smog in the air

This guest commentary is by Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of Transportation Solutions.

Innovative and forward-thinking businesses are beginning to realize that supporting reasonable commute options in the workplace helps employees save on commute-related costs while offering employees more travel choices. More choices improve employee recruitment and retention. Choices also help reduce single occupant driving, traffic congestion, and air pollution. Transit Solutions reports show a well-crafted commute program can reduce single occupant vehicle (SOV) travel by up to 15% without adding cost for the employer or forcing anyone to give up their car. Adding financial incentives and active promotion to the mix can sometimes reduce it further by up to 25% SOV travel. (Example: City of Seattle Commute Trip Reduction Strategic Plan 2019-2023)

Commuter surveys conducted by Transportation Solutions, the transportation management association (TMA) serving southeast Denver and Glendale found that one out of four employers offer support for more options than driving alone and parking. The most common benefits after parking are free or subsidized transit passes and incentives for carpoolers. Commuters also desire more commute options. A survey of Cherry Creek employees in 2017 showed 42% of employees desiring help with options other than driving alone.

Commute program assistance is free. The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) created the award-winning Way to Go Partnership two decades ago as a voluntary initiative designed to help employers establish successful commute programs. DRCOG and eight local nonprofit transportation management associations set up employer transit pass programs, form carpools and vanpools, formalize teleworking arrangements, explore micro-transit routes, and much more. Hundreds of employers have benefited from these free services and find value in the results.

Requiring all large employers to offer commute programs seems like a logical step and one that has been done successfully in most western cities. For 20 years, cities including Phoenix, Tucson, Seattle, Spokane, Portland, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and 14 other regions have had commute trip reduction requirements. Seattle credits the low drive-alone rate in downtown (23%) to employer commute programs. 

Requirements typically focus on four elements.

  1. Large employers should offer commute information – such as local bus schedules, bike maps, and carpool matching – to new and existing employees.
  2. Employers must offer employees the Federal Commuter Tax Benefit (IRC 132(f)) that allows employees to purchase transit passes or pay for vanpool seats using pre-tax dollars. It is simple to offer and saves employers $7.65 for every $100 an employee uses pre-tax.
  3. Employers need to develop a plan to achieve a reasonable target lowering SOV travel, usually around 10% to 15%.
  4. Employers conduct periodic commute surveys to assess what employees desire and how they are commuting. 

Today, Denver is ranked as one of the worst cities in America for harmful air quality. Denverites breathe unhealthy air a significant portion of the year. During the summer of 2021, there were 65 ozone alert days when individuals are asked to reduce activity that can create harmful emissions. Twice, in 2021 and 1994, Colorado health agencies have considered requiring commute programs. Twice it was deemed too onerous an ask for Denver employers, even though employers in most western cities have been doing it successfully for two decades.

Colorado’s 2022 legislative session offers promise with two potential bills. The first would create a tax credit for employers that purchase transit passes for employees (HB22-1026 Alternative Transportation Options Tax Credit). The second bill, which has not yet been assigned a bill number, would encourage employers to implement commute programs. What the bill might require of employers is yet to be determined, but the Denver region cannot meet Federal Clean Air standards without substantive action that engages more employers in commute trip reduction.

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