Why We Should Pay People to Bike to Work

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This morning, it took me 40 minutes to drive 3.5 miles from my house in Jamaica Plain to my office by Symphony Hall. That’s about 5 miles per hour, a pace that makes me want to slam my head into the dashboard, over and over again. I can jog faster than that, and I am not a good runner. Traffic was particularly brutal today, but I’ve never made it less than 30 minutes during rush hour — which is why, 99 percent of the time, I bike to work (20 minutes, door-to-door) or take the T (25 minutes).

After I fired up my computer and settled into my desk, I opened the Globe and was reminded again why biking is the best way to get around Boston: Booming Kendall Square has vastly increased its office space over the past few years, while actually cutting car traffic. Yes, you read that right. Here’s the Globe‘s Eric Moskowitz:

­”Despite the rapid expansion in and around Kendall Square in the last ­decade — the neighborhood absorbed a 40 percent increase in commercial and institutional space, adding 4.6 million square feet of development — automobile traffic actually dropped on major streets, with vehicle counts falling as much as 14 percent.

Although more commuters are churning in and out of Kendall each day, many more than ever are going by T, bike, car pool, or foot.”

How’d they do it? By encouraging people to bike and take public transit. Back in 1998, Cambridge passed a serious parking and traffic ordinance requiring employers to make smart commuting subsidies. Workers receive a monthly stipend (the Globe gives examples of companies offering $100 to $125) that they’re allowed to put that toward parking or just buy a T pass, and keep what’s leftover. Or, if they bike or walk, they can keep the entire stipend. Do that year round and you’re looking at a pretty sizable bonus for being healthy: $1,200 to $1,500.

The benefits of policies like this are so far beyond obvious, it’s baffling that every city hasn’t adopted them. Some people will always need to drive — that’s totally fine. But by providing a real economic incentive for workers to take public transit or to bike or walk, everyone wins. Bikers and walkers get a bit of extra cash and exercise, public transit is being put to good use, and drivers can actually get to work faster.

  • Grace

    I agree 100%!

  • Marisa

    I would definitely put more effort into publicly commuting if there was a financial incentive.

  • rob

    as an employee, receiving money from your employer to take advantage of public transportation or choose not to drive is great. As an employer, that is a lot of money to have to come up with each month/year – the cost of an employee is already expensive when you consider the costs of health insurance, federal and state unemployment taxes, and medicare and SS taxes.
    If salaries or hourly rates or hiring has slowed you wonder why — when companies have to spend money on other areas of their business – don’t be surprised. With all the added bonuses/benefits there has to be a sacrifice made somewhere and you may also see that in the end pricing.
    If customers have to pay more so someone has to be bribed to not drive or possibly simply continue commuting how they always have that is o.k.?
    I don’t think so…

    • Steve

      Rob: You raise a good point, but I suggest a focus on direct costs to a business of a subsidy for not driving misses several important factors in play here.
      1. If a business provides any help with parking costs—and many do—this is simply leveling the playing field. Are you saying that, in the interest of job creation, the businesses should stop ALL subsidies for all forms of traveling to/from work? That would be the consistent position.
      2. For any business that rents, buys, or builds parking for employees, the savings form providing fewer spaces would be enormous. New construction of structured parking can run as high as $40K PER SPACE. Renting an existing space in a garage could easily run $300 or more. At $40K per space, you could pay someone $100/month to bike for 30 years and still come out ahead.
      3. One point of the Globe article was that Cambridge has been able to absorb a LOT more development in Kendall by aggressively discouraging driving AND encouraging biking/walking/using transit. The city gains a significant revenue boost from that extra 4.6 million square feet; there’s no reason it couldn’t kick in some money to subsidize the non-driving payments in the form of a small tax abatement per rider/walker/T rider (with verification required, of course). I don’t think it does that now, but it would likely still come out way ahead.
      4. A non-driving benefit would prove a significant recruiting advantage to desirable workers. Beyond the financial incentive, it would tell potential hires something about the company’s values. Many businesses would consider that an important benefit.
      5. The companies involved in doing this aren’t sandwich shops or convenience stores with a three-person staff; these are larger firms for whom this cost is not going to be a job killer.

    • Mike

      Rob, I think this is a key point. The money doesn’t come from nowhere. This whole thing can be put in terms of “Give the stipend to everybody, regardless of whether they drive/walk/ride/etc. Then the smart people can keep the extra.” This is the approach in the article, and, apparently, the law.
      Or… it’s equivalent to saying “Give the stipend to *nobody* regardless of whether they drive/walk/ride/etc. Then the drivers will just have to pony up for parking.”
      They are exactly the same thing. Either way, I am in favor of the program, though I’d prefer to put it in terms of the second option given above.

  • Nina

    I wish this sort of program existed back home in Hawaii. I have been biking and taking public transportation for the past 20 years. Of course I saved a lot of money and helped the environment in the process, but it would be nice to have the incentives too. I will never stop biking, F*** all the cars.

  • Spokker

    Aren’t these things already factored into cost of living pay increases? You get paid more in Boston than Wisconsin, all other things being equal, because it costs more to live and do business in large metropolitan areas than in the middle of nowhere.

    So you already get paid more because, among other things, there is an implicit assumption that it costs more to park in Boston than Wisconsin. You don’t need an ordinance on top of that. All you need to do is change your own behavior and you save money and live healthier.

    It really doesn’t matter if they just paid you cash or gave you a transportation benefit. Your total compensation, which includes all wages and benefits, remains the same in the long run. The extra $1200 to $1500 a year sounds great, but it also probably means fewer or lesser raises. It all washes out in the end.

    I would rather be paid my full salary than some bureaucrat telling me my salary is better off being paid in transportation benefits instead of cash. The same principle is why you should prefer to receive cash than a gift card for your birthday, and why you should give cash instead of locking people into a particular store.

    • Spokker

      Where I live you can cash out your parking privileges and receive the full amount. It would actually be better for transit and biking if the parking cost were cashed out to every employee by default and employees were made to pay for their own parking. Currently, parking costs are hidden.

      At my college, students pay the full cost of parking. There are zero subsidies and I verified this. This certainly was a factor in taking the bus during all of undergrad. Imagine if they roll parking costs into tuition. The cost of parking would be hidden in a giant tuition bill and students would be less likely to take transit or bike to school.

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