When Ted FitzGerald settles in for his morning commute by bus from Raleigh to Durham, he becomes the model enlightened commuter that Triangle transportation advocates see as the region’s future. Three days a week, FitzGerald cruises 25-miles each way on a bus equipped with Wi-Fi service, his movable office away from the office.
FitzGerald estimates that taking the bus saves him between $1,000 and $1,500 a year on gasoline. In the process, he removes one car from Interstate 40, clears up a free parking space in Durham and doesn’t contribute a particle of pollution to the region’s air quality.
“It’s so much more productive for me,” said FitzGerald, 49, a director of global research services for FHI 360, an international nonprofit organization. “I avoid the frustration of dealing with traffic.”
But ask FitzGerald a few questions about the logistics of his commute, and it’s not very hard to see why commuters like him remain relatively rare here. His GoTriangle bus stop is within walking distance of his home, and the bus drops him off just 1 1/2 blocks away from his office on the American Tobacco Campus. His monthly bus pass – worth $102 – is free, courtesy of FHI 360’s landlord, to ease demand for limited parking spaces.
A number of Triangle companies like FHI 360 are consistently ranked nationally for offering generous commuting benefits. The perks amount to free money, and include bus passes and subsidies for bicycling or van pooling. Such employers typically offer a free taxi ride or rental car for nondriving employees who need an emergency ride home. At RTI International, a nonprofit in Research Triangle Park, cyclists get an on-site bike repair facility in addition to a $240 annual subsidy for pedaling to the office.
Competitive commuting perks qualified 18 Triangle businesses and organization this year for inclusion among the nation’s 231 Best Workplaces for Commuters, a voluntary program run by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The program was started in 2002 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation to showcase employers that are not exclusively staffed by solo drivers.
Local companies and governments embraced the concept to ease congestion on the Triangle’s highways and to improve air quality, which for years was below federal standards. RTP employers that regularly made the list included the EPA itself and Cisco Systems, as well as local governments and universities. To qualify, employers must show that at least 14 percent of their workforce is not driving alone to work, and they must offer incentives to encourage workers not to drive.
A reverse take on commuting broke into the news last month when global technology giant IBM curtailed its longstanding work-from-home perk. IBM, which is on the 2017 list of Best Workplaces for Commuters, declined to describe its commuting benefits for this story.
For the companies that do promote alternative commuting options, such benefits can produce impressive results. At Red Hat, the downtown Raleigh software company, 25 percent of employees work from home. At Citrix, another downtown Raleigh software company, nearly 22 percent are teleworkers. And at FHI 360, more than half the employees either work at home, bike to work or ride the bus on a regular basis at least once a week.
For most Triangle residents, however, driving to work remains the most practical option, year after year. In Durham County, the percentage of commuters who drive alone hasn’t budged from 74 percent in a decade, U.S. Census surveys show. In Wake County, the percentage of commuters who drive to work alone is higher – fluctuating between 79 percent and 81 percent.
Triangle transportation advocates say that in one of the fastest-growing and decentralized regions in the country, there’s a chronic shortage of alternatives to driving. Voters apparently agree: Wake, Durham and Orange counties have approved transit referendums raising the county sales tax for transit spending. In Wake’s case, the tax increase is expected to triple bus service and help develop commuter rail.
“We know many people work in one county but travel to another [county] for work, school, doctor’s appointments or other important places,” said GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau. “It is significant to note that Wake, Durham and Orange County voters all approved referendums. … It also speaks volumes about our residents who recognize the need for more transit options and understand the correlation between better transit connections and greater opportunities for all, as well as the investment in a greater quality of life in the region.”
Some statistics show a reduced reliance on driving, but it would be wrong to assume it’s all due to progressive commuting policies, noted Philip Winters, director of the Transportation Demand Management Program at the Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa. One example: a gradual increase in the past decade of people who work from home in Wake and Durham counties. The work-at-home rise can be partly attributed to technological improvements and flexible employers.
But Winters said some home-based workers are running a side business, not high-end teleworkers who choose not to drive to the office. Likewise, 32 percent of GoTriangle bus riders don’t own a car.
Employers say they offer these perks to attract and retain talented workers who want to work for flexible and accommodating organizations. Such employers promote sustainability as part of their corporate culture. The fewer who people drive to the office, the fewer parking spaces have to be provided on company property. And some of the transit subsidies for workers can be written off, saving employers on payroll-related taxes.
“Our open culture lends itself to people working where they are most comfortable and most productive,” said Red Hat spokeswoman Allison Showalter.
FitzGerald has got his commute down to a science. He uses the GoTriangle app to track the bus’s location so he doesn’t waste time waiting. He uses the free onboard Wi-Fi to plan for meetings and check email.
He’s been commuting by bus for nearly 20 years and has used the free emergency ride home service just three times, “mostly when I stayed late at work.”
Steven Goldsmith, an internal communications specialist at Red Hat, has been taking the bus four days a week since he joined Red Hat last year. Goldsmith, who lives in northern Raleigh, does have to drive 5 miles to pick up the bus, but he would drive that way anyway, so it’s not out of his way. Riding the bus adds 5 to 10 minutes to his 13-mile commute.
“But what you gain is a whole lot of stuff,” he said “I can work. I can read.”
He also uses a free $102 bus pass, contributed by his employer, and estimates he saves $50 a month on gasoline.
“Because I don’t have to worry about driving, I can be more productive on the bus,” he said. “And I’m a lot less stressed out on either end of the journey.”
Triangle employers listed on the 2017 Best Workplaces for Commuters
- American Tobacco Campus
- BASF Corp.
- City of Raleigh
- Duke University
- Duke University Health System
- FHI 360
- N.C. Department of Environmental Quality
- NC. State University
- RTI International
- Town of Chapel Hill
- Triangle J Council of Governemnts
- UNC Chapel Hill
- Veterans Affairs Medical Center
- Wake Tech Community College