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Boston Mayor Wu Offers City Staff Incentives to Ditch Cars

Mayor Michelle Wu announced that the city of Boston will pay 65 percent of each employee’s MBTA monthly pass of their choice, a significant cost savings compared to the pre-tax discount workers had been offered previously.

(TNS) — A new benefits package rolled out to city employees is geared at getting more cars off the road, through enhanced incentives for public transit and bike share use.

Mayor Michelle Wu announced Wednesday that the City of Boston will pay 65% of each employee’s MBTA monthly pass of their choice, a significant cost savings compared to the pre-tax discount workers had been offered previously.

The city is also offering free Bluebikes memberships to employees, who were previously paying $60 for a $119 annual pass, and has expanded employees’ annual fitness reimbursement to include active mobility expenses.

“The city is one of the largest employers in Boston — it’s 18,000 people,” said Kat Eshel, Boston’s deputy director of climate and environment planning.

“And if the city is going to move in this direction, it sends a clear signal to other employers that they need to be getting serious about the kind of transit benefits that we need to see across the city in order to get more people out of personal vehicles and into transit and on bikes and walking.”

Eshel represents a group of city workers that advocated for a comprehensive transit benefits package, which had previously been essentially a minor tax-free discount on monthly subway, commuter rail or bus passes, and a half-price Bluebikes pass that had to be negotiated by employees and wasn’t well-known by workers.

Bicycle and Active Transportation Employee Resource Group first sought the change in 2020, via a letter it sent to former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in 2020, but didn’t get much traction due to the pandemic and advent of remote work, Eshel said.

When Wu took over in 2022, Eshel said the group “dusted off the letter,” sent it to the new administration and was immediately put in touch with the city’s then-new Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

Essentially, the group made the case that the city provided more incentive for employees to drive to work, rather than take the bus, train or commute by bike.

For example, parking is free at most city buildings, including 1010 Massachusetts Ave. and the Bolling Municipal Building, which “equates to a commuter subsidy for driving.” By comparison, private sector employee parking tends to cost $40 per day, or $350 per month, the group wrote last February.

“We need to better incentivize taking active and shared modes and reduce incentives to drive,” the letter stated.

Once the interest became mutual, the group partnered with the city’s Office of Human Resources to conduct a survey, to gather data on how employees were commuting to work and what needed to be done to “change their behavior.”

“People did explicitly say, in order to change their behavior, subsidized benefits for bike and MBTA and other modes of active transit is exactly what would change their behavior,” said Alex Lawrence, chief people officer.

“I think this, to us, hit the sort of Green New Deal for Boston points really, like using every single tool in our toolbox to decrease carbon emissions.”

Lawrence said the new benefits package will also be used as an employee retention and recruiting tool, as the city aims to be an “employer of choice” and adapt its workplace policies to “better support the needs of our workforce.”

The interest is there so far, according to Lawrence, who said employees enrolling in MBTA monthly pass benefits jumped from 747 to 1,319 and those seeking Bluebikes memberships went from under 100 to 574, as of Wednesday.

The city is also a participating employer in a two-year pilot the MBTA is running as part of its expanded pay-per-use limited fare program.

Roughly 4,000 randomly-selected city employees will have unlimited access to subway and local bus services, starting this spring, with costs covered by City Hall, Lawrence said.

Other participating employers include Google, Sanofi and Assembly Row retailers.

“That will really, I think, give us better data about sort of making fare-free transit available to people,” Lawrence said.

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