Transportation Program Generated Surprising Side Benefits

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jan 4, 2010

When Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) started offering transportation benefits in 2008, the hospital’s main goal was to help its more than 12,000 employees deal with high gas prices. It was only later that they discovered how useful the benefit was for employees with disabilities.

Instead of driving, employees can avail themselves of one of two Cincinnati-area bus services, according to Bob Baer, director of parking and transportation for CCHMC. “They are not expensive,” he said, but that doesn’t mean they are convenient for everyone. “I have seen many people getting dropped off by family members and cabs,” he told SHRM Online.

In response to employee requests for help with transportation costs the hospital explored a variety of options and invited interested employees to help identify solutions. The result was a pre-tax transportation benefit called “smart commuter” managed by the hospital’s flexible spending account administrator.

But the hospital decided to add something else.

“We decided to run a shuttle route to the main hub of bus transportation so [employees] don’t have to transfer two or three times,” he said. “Some employees said that saved them 50 percent of their cost [of transportation] before getting on the smart commuter program.”

Yet although Project Search, an employment program for individuals with significant disabilities, is housed at CCHMC, Baer said its transportation efforts did not focus on the needs of that group.

But that didn’t stop them from taking advantage of the service.

“The Project Search people started using it more than anyone,” he said, of the shuttle. “We then worked directly with that group to give them training about how to use the service and took some field trips downtown. We followed up with them and they seemed to be the biggest benefiters [of the program]. We were surprised by that.”

Why Transportation Matters

Johanna Bentwood works at a Starbucks in central New Hampshire. She has a visual impairment and mild Asperger’s syndrome which prevent her from driving, but no access to public transportation. As a result her partner and others take her to and from work, a 50-mile round trip. “There isn't much available work closer that is offering enough hours to pay bills,” she told SHRM Online, and because Starbucks has a transfer policy, she was readily able to secure an open position there after relocating.

“I didn't realize how lucky I was in South Carolina to be in biking distance of Starbucks and, when I couldn't bike, it was a fast drive,” she added. She was similarly blessed when she lived and worked in the Washington D.C. area. “Sometimes I wonder how communities can leave out the working population [with a] disability.”

Warren Fried is founder and executive director of Dyspraxia USA, a nonprofit organization which strives to educate the public about the neurological condition. He tried to get a driver’s license as a teen and finally passed the written test on his sixth attempt, but only because he was lucky enough to get the same version of a test he had previously failed and was able to tap into his long-term memory to answer the questions.

Once he was behind the wheel, however, it was clear that driving would not be an option for him. “I could not judge how far away a car was from me due to depth perception problems,” he told SHRM Online. “I didn’t know how to turn the wheel and or which side of the road I was on and merging was a near impossibility.”

That’s why Fried chose to relocate to Chicago, a city he selected because of its many transportation options.

But public transportation doesn’t always work as well as it should.

Joseph Picard had no interest in getting a driver’s license even before he was hit by a car in 2001 while cycling to work. “The bus worked well enough, and I didn't have to buy gas, a car, or insurance,” he told SHRM Online. Yet since his accident in September 2001, the former computer technician and graphic artist turned sci-fi writer and paraplegic has developed a new perspective on the challenges of public transportation.

“Sidewalks are alright where I go, but it's ironic that an award-winning transit system can often separate 'wheelchair accessible' stops between half a dozen that aren't deemed wheelchair accessible,” Picard said of his Vancouver, Canada neighborhood. “Then there are hills. In this suburb, hills are few, and gentle, but it doesn't take much of a trek toward downtown before the hills become a huge problem.”

“As transit systems have become more accessible over the years, the main obstacles now are often just a block or two of missing sidewalk between the transit stop and the place of employment, or even poorly designed parking lots between the sidewalk and the building entrance that can be difficult to navigate,” noted John Z. Wetmore, producer of “Perils For Pedestrians,” a monthly television series aired on satellite, cable, and the Internet.

“Of course, if the place of employment is located on the fringe of a region beyond the reach of normal transit services, other alternatives will be needed,” Wetmore told SHRM Online.

Wetmore said he has interviewed a number of guests on his show who have experienced problems getting around in their areas, such as a blind woman with no safe sidewalks and a wheelchair user who has difficulty getting to work when sidewalks are not cleared of snow and ice.

“Although employees with disabilities often use the same types of transportation options as their non-disabled peers, there are some who are unable to use regularly scheduled transit because of accessibility issues,” says Carolyn Jeskey, director of the Joblinks Transportation Center of the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) in Washington, D.C. Some might work during hours when public transportation access is limited while others might not know how to use the system or be aware that paratransit services are available.

Employer Options

Jeskey says there are a number of ways employers can begin the process of exploring transportation options suitable for their location and employee needs:

  • Designate a staff person to act as an employee transportation coordinator.
  • Partner with local transportation providers to educate employees about alternative transportation options.
  • Collaborate with local transportation agencies to design options that meet the needs of all commuters and/or implement discount fares.
  • Join other local employers to form consortiums that jointly support shared rides to work.
  • Inform employees about, and encourage them to take advantage of, the Qualified Transportation Fringe Benefit Program (IRS Section 132(f)), which provides tax incentives for employers and employees.
  • Understand the need for flexibility in setting work schedules for employees who ride public transit to work.
  • Encourage ridesharing via carpool or vanpool for employees who might not be able to use public transportation or whose work shifts don't correspond with public transportation schedules.

Additional information is available in CTAA’s Transportation Toolkit for the Business Community.

Friendship Industries, Inc., a Harrisonburg, Va.-based organization that provides employment and training opportunities for people with disabilities, first made sure it’s facility was located on the city’s bus line. Those with more severe disabilities have access to curb-to-curb service provided by the city’s paratransit service. Others take advantage of door-to-door van service for a nominal fee, according to Patricia Craft, PHR, Friendship’s human resources manager.

Fried says employers can help new employees by making sure they understand how the transportation system works in their area. “Once we master the task of memorizing the transportation system we are able to not only get to work on time but work harder than others due to the high levels of frustration and courage we faced to enter a workplace with a hidden neurological disorder,” he said.

Added Benefits

Baer said the hospital’s shuttle route has added benefits. Those who drive to work sometimes take advantage of the 8-minute shuttle ride to leave their cars parked, skip the hospital cafeteria and go downtown for lunch, he said.

The shuttle is even used to entice prospective employees and faculty recruits who stay at a downtown hotel “about 50 yards from the shuttle stop,” he explained.

Long-term, the cost-savings can be significant, Baer said.

For example, it costs between $12,000 and $15,000 per parking space when the hospital builds a parking garage, according to Baer. Therefore the program pays for itself if just one employee uses the hospital’s transportation program instead of driving and parking, he noted.

“We don’t have a lot of room to grow,” he said. “The more demand I can take off the parking garages the better it is for employees.”

And employees save time and money and are less likely to be tardy, he said, because they don’t have to switch buses or search for a parking space.

“Supporting the use of public transportation and ridesharing is a win-win-win opportunity. Your business, your employees and the community all benefit,” Jeskey said. “Employers who provide transportation benefits for their workforce gain many rewards for their company,” Jeskey said, such as:

  • Attracting and retaining workers.
  • Reducing employee stress and increasing employee morale and employee job satisfaction by promoting commuting options that are less burdensome.
  • Reducing gas emissions and conserving energy.
  • Saving on overhead costs associated with maintaining on-site parking lots and garages and adding more parking spaces to keep up with a growing workforce by encouraging shared rides to work.
  • Reducing payroll taxes by allowing employees to use pre-tax dollars for transportation.
  • Enhancing the corporate image as an environmentally and worker-friendly company.

Jeskey encourages employers to discuss employee transportation needs with other nearby businesses, the local chamber of commerce, workforce investment boards, disability service organizations, and local transit providers and planners. “Together you can design and implement transportation services and programs that are affordable, accessible and reliable,” she said.

When it comes to transportation issues Baer’s advice to employers is simple: plan ahead.

“Parking and transportation cannot be an afterthought,” Baer said. “Messing with someone’s parking is like messing with their paycheck.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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