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Employers Have the Power to Cut Single-Occupancy Trips

The Ignite Action Fund, spearheaded by Smart Columbus, has helped to transition commuters to other forms of shared transit by partnering with workplaces to offer the initiative as an employee benefit.

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Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen
Changing commuter behavior is not just about engaging with drivers heading to work, but their employers as well.

This has been the approach taken in Columbus, Ohio, where the Smart Columbus program is working to reduce single-occupancy trips by boosting public transit ridership and electric vehicle adoption, among other reforms.

Part of this transformative effort established the Ignite Action Fund, a roughly $600,000 pot of money to seed programming aimed at developing traffic reduction programs within companies. The fund was created to get "companies committed to the program, get them to move,” said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership in Ohio.

Officials with Smart Columbus reached out to large employers like J.P. Morgan Chase, which employs more than 20,000 workers across two campuses in the city, to have them explore opportunities that would result in workers driving less. Some of those changes included tweaks to new employee orientation about bus schedules or fares and even other mobility options like car-pooling.

“We wanted to help spur a rebalance of this culture,” said Davis. Smart Columbus helped to fund some of these “drive less” activities.

“What we’ve seen now is a lot of the programs that we started with this are now becoming the norm, and they’ve been able to justify that it works through a pilot. And so now, it’s a normal benefit that they can fund and scale in the company,” said Davis. 

Working from within the business organization is also the approach taken by Share, a new “mobility-as-a-service” provider in Columbus. The company provides scheduled shared rides to destinations like workplaces, with pick-ups at “virtual bus stops” or in some cases, the rider’s front door. Share partners with businesses and other organizations to set up the service for their workers. The rides are booked in advance through the Share app.

“It’s only available to organizations that sign up with us, and then they offer it as a benefit,” explained, Ryan McManus, CEO of Share, founded in June 2016, with the first rides taking off in October 2017.

The Ignite Action Fund probably did more for businesses to change behavior — through offering shared commuter plans or even assistance with transit passes — than riders, said McManus.

“The Ignite Action Fund was that spark to get the first organizations to do something. And now, four of the 10 largest companies in Columbus use Share as a commuter benefit.”

More than 20 organizations now offer Share services. The company doesn’t publish its ridership numbers, but it would say that on average, commuters using the service are taking more than 25 trips a month with the platform. About 55 percent of Share’s business is transporting workers to work. The company is now more than three times as big as it was a year ago and has expanded services to Cleveland.

“What we’re seeing in Cleveland is very similar to Columbus. The first year it’s available, it’s very new to employers and it takes some time to adopt,” said McManus. “But now we’re getting more and more employers in Cleveland to participate.”

CoverMyMeds, a health-care software company and another Columbus startup, partners with Share to provide a commuter transit option for workers.

“That has grown like wildfire. They have so many of their associates using the service now. It’s a big amenity and workforce attraction,” said Davis.

Share starts by analyzing employee data and makes recommendations for what transit should look like for a particular business.

“I do not want to mode-shift. I want to enhance public transit. It’s all about improving the mobility ecosystem,” he added. “And to make the overall mobility ecosystem more efficient, the first thing you want to do is you want to get as many people to take transit as possible.”

Micro-transit like the service offered by Share is not always what works best for workers. White Castle, the fastfood chain headquartered in the city, polled its workers and learned their commutes could be best served by transit and making it more affordable. So the company, with the help of the Ignite Action Fund, began offering deeply discounted transit passes. The incentive was so popular at the company’s Columbus headquarters, White Castle has rolled out the perk to other cities.

What these programs represent — more than just getting commuters to drive less — is a fundamental cultural shift within workplaces to see mobility as a kind of employee benefit.

“My goal is to make mobility benefits as common as health-care benefits,” he added.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.