High gas prices and the ongoing concern for the environment have prompted an increasing number of environmentally sensitive businesses to focus attention outside of the workplace and on those carpool lanes, bike lanes and even sidewalks.
Many businesses are now encouraging and rewarding employees who use alternate forms of transportation to get to and from work. For some companies, it means paying the daily fares and footing the bill for mass transit for their employees. Other companies are rewarding carpoolers with prizes such as gift cards to local businesses.
While carpooling has attracted fewer than 8 percent of the nation's daily commuters, vanpooling has emerged as another option, with companies hiring vans, designating a driver (or rotating drivers) and giving commuters the opportunity to relax en route to the office. According to the Santa Barbara County Van Pools in Southern California, riders pay anywhere from $100 to $175 per month, depending on the distance to and from the destination, which typically beats paying for gas. In some cases, companies are setting up their own vanpools, such as those used by Safeco Insurance, which offers incentives to employees who use any of the 80 active vanpools that are set up throughout the country.
Biking to and from the office is also gaining popularity: "We give out a bicycle to everyone who has worked at the company for at least one year," says Bryan Simpson of New Belgium Beer in Fort Collins, Colorado. The environmentally driven brewery, which runs on the power of wind turbines, has seen more employees biking than your average brewery and even hosts a philanthropic bike festival called the Tour de Fat, which celebrates bicycling as a viable form of transportation.
Joshua Scott Onysko, founder and CEO of Boulder, Colorado-based Pangea Organics, who also gives mass transit passes to employees, sat down with his staffers to determine what else could be done to encourage "greener" commuting. "We found that a lot of people would bike to work but needed a place to change and dry off," explains Onysko. "We responded by turning 500 square feet of our facility into lockers and showers for employees biking to work."
For those who are not avid bikers, there's always another basic, earth-friendly alternative. "I walk to my office every day," says Kelly LaPlante, founder of Kelly LaPlante Organic Design in Venice, California. "In fact, everybody who works for us, more than part time, is within walking distance. We prefer people who live close to us who can walk to work. It helps us decrease our carbon footprint," says LaPlante, adding that the company certainly wouldn't turn anybody away who is talented just because they're not living nearby.
Along with providing incentives and amenities for bike riders and walkers, it behooves a company to initiate alternative commuting. With that in mind, RideSpring, a Santa Cruz, California, company that matches commuters online offers rewards to individuals for their "greener" commuting efforts. "The most popular place to organize a carpool is at work, but very few companies have a system in place to help people find matches," says RideSpring founder Paul T. McGrath.
With that in mind, RideSpring sets up specific password-protected websites for companies where employees can post and find ride information and subsequently win individual monthly prizes, such as $300 toward REI purchases or $400 toward Apple goodies, simply by using alternative means of commuting. In addition, RideSpring compiles trip reduction statistics on a daily basis so that business owners can evaluate the effectiveness of their programs.
"[RideSpring uses] a formula that essentially gives us the number of commuting miles saved, gas saved and reduction of CO2 emissions. This allows us to tell our employees how much they are helping the environment so that they can continue to use the RideSpring program," explains Mark Parnes, assistant general counsel and green team member at the Palo Alto, California office of the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. The firm has seen a positive response to its RideSpring incentive program.
To get started with a green commuting program, companies can do their own workplace commuting evaluations. "Companies can do workplace transportation audits to look at what infrastructure and policies are in place now and see where changes can be made to help develop green commuting action plans," says Jessie Klassen, coordinator of workplace transportation for Resource Conservation Manitoba, a nonprofit center for applied sustainability based in Manitoba, Canada.
According to Klassen, who helps businesses develop such green commuting plans, one of the principal reasons that commuters shy away from greener modes of transportation is the inconvenience of not having accessibility to a car during the day.
This problem is being addressed by Zipcar, which merged with Flexcar in October 2007. The company provides low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicles that can be conveniently parked near any business and ready for whoever is signed up and holds an access card. Companies that sign up can have employee rules in place for using the "instant car" for which they are charged an hourly rate, which includes gas, insurance and maintenance. Such easy access to a car can provide peace of mind for those employees who are uncomfortable about not having an available vehicle in case of an emergency, such as a call from their son child's school.
Slowly but surely, companies are making efforts to entice their workforce to make the switch to alternative transportation. Even communities are jumping on board. For example, Boulder, Colorado features the annual Bike to Work Day Business Challenge, pitting businesses in different size categories against one another to see who can have the most employees pedal their way to work. Meanwhile, in Central Oklahoma, there is also a Bike to Work Day; in Santa Barbara, California, there's Bike to Work Week; and according to the League of American Bicyclists, May is National Bike Month, with biking events scheduled in various states throughout the month.
Rich Mintzer is a journalist and author of more than 50 nonfiction books, including several on starting a business. He hails from Westchester, New York, where he lives with his family.