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Posts about Commuter Benefits


Ask GGW: How have planners made your daily commute better?

When it comes to getting around, it can be easy to focus on what we wish we had or what's going wrong. But what about the good stuff that's already there? We asked our contributors about the best parts of their daily commutes and the planning choices that made them happen.

Photo by Andrew Gastwirth on Flickr.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of votes went to bicycle infrastructure, particularly off-street trails. Kelly Blynn sang the praises of DC's newest bike trail, the Metropolitan Branch Trail:

I have to bike on some high speed streets (4th NE and Franklin NE) to get there, but once I'm on it, it's a dream: smooth, mostly down hill, no stop lights. There are even fresh berries to pick for breakfast in the summer months. What?! I really must be dreaming.

So did Jeff Lemieux:

The MBT was the missing link between upper NE DC and downtown. Since it opened, bike commuters no longer have to either ride in heavy traffic or cross major highway-like streets like New York Avenue. Even though it's only a short stretch between Brookland and NoMa, the MBT made my bike commute from northern Prince George's possible.
Abigail Zenner singled out other recently-added bike infrastructure in the District:
I love the L Street, M Street, and 15th Street protected bikeways! I work at the corner of 15th and L NW, and I love having the option to bike to work. I also love the new bikeshare station at that corner for the days I don't want to bike back up the hill. My bike commute takes about the same time as the bus but I can leave whenever I want to and it's a lot more fun.
David Cranor has discovered how better sidewalks also help cyclists on busy routes:
As part of the Great Streets Program, DDOT rebuilt Pennsylvania Avenue SE east of the Anacostia. That rebuild included a 10-foot-wide sidepath on the uphill side. The addition of what is basically a climbing lane on this steep busy road means that I have a relatively pleasant bike ride that's separated from the road, instead of a white-knuckled slog up a hill punctuated by honking drivers and close, aggressive passing.
Canaan Merchant who uses either his folding bike or Metrobus to get to and from Virginia Railway Express at L'Enfant Plaza, said he's grateful to have more than one mode option:
The 15th street bike lanes are a huge help for me because I know that I don't have to hustle like I would feel pressured to do elsewhere. For bad weather days, did you know you can ride Metrobus free on a VRE ticket to or from a VRE station? It's great not to pay twice on my commute.
Chris Slatt touted Arlington's interconnected bikeways:
For me it's the Shirlington Connector, the trail that runs under I-395 and connects the W&OD Trail to the Four Mile Run Trail. 395 is a major barrier for walking and bicycling, but the Shirlington Connector, the recent improvements to Joyce Street, and the planned Hoffman-Boston Connector are all part of Arlington's plan to give people options to overcome that barrier.
Jonathan Krall also talked about his easier bike commute:
The Wilson Bridge Trail reduced my bicycle commute from 12 miles to 9 miles, short enough to do almost every day and a big step towards my current state of car-freedom. A sidewalk on a bridge may seem like a no-brainer, but sidewalks continue to be excluded or dangerously underbuilt on many bridges today. The decision to build a trail on the Wilson Bridge and the decision to plow it in the winter were life-changers. A trail extension along I-295 and a "fix" for the expansion joints would make it the same for hundreds of others.
Adam Froehling, a frequent commenter, offered a note on biking in Alexandria as well as driving-related praise for the Wilson Bridge:
When I was riding my bike a lot, Alexandria's early completion of Potomac Ave through the Potomac Yard area made for a shorter, lower-traffic trip that avoided the lack of connections between the Mount Vernon Trail and the Pentagon area.

I was also thankful for the completion of the local/express lanes on the Wilson Bridge. This made for a mostly-predictable 25 minute commute between Huntington and Suitland, especially in the afternoons.

Michael Perkins mentioned road improvements:
For me, the decision to make I-66 HOV keeps a major highway from being congested during the morning rush hour. Even more significant to my situation is the Federal decision to keep motorcyclists out of dangerous stop-and-go traffic by allowing them to use HOV lanes. I've been bumped from behind on I-395 by a driver who apologized and told me he "fell asleep". That's really comforting considering what's at stake if someone runs into my back...
David Versel mentioned something that isn't a physical construction:
In my case it's not a piece of infrastructure, it's a policy: the Commonwealth Commuter Choice program. As a state employee, I get up to $130 per month towards my Metro fare, which is a terrific incentive that influences many people to use transit.
And Tracey Loh said she really appreciates a piece of technology:
My commuting life became a nightmare after I had a baby and needed to factor in daycare transportation. My saving grace is the navigation app Waze. My worst commute across the city once lasted over two hours one way. Thanks to Waze, my commute is now a very predictable 75 minutes each way.
Dan Reed noted a mundane, oft-overlooked part of a safe, inviting roadway for pedestrians:
Streetlights! On my old street, there were highway-style streetlights that barely covered the roadway, let alone the sidewalks. It was bad enough coming home from work in the winter when I could at least make things out from the headlights of passing cars. But coming home from the bar when nobody was around, it was scary even for a 6'1" guy like me, if only for the potential of running into low-hanging tree branches. Where I live now, there are urban-style streetlights that light the sidewalk, making it safe and comfortable to walk.
Finally, Dan Malouff showed love to an old stand by:
We can't have this discussion without mentioning Metrorail. Yeah, it's frustrating at times, but can you imagine our region without it? Metrorail is so ubiquitous, such a backbone for the region, that we take it for granted all the time. But it's the best post-war subway system in the US, it absolutely makes life better for millions of people every day, and its presence here was by no means a forgone conclusion.
Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!


Fiscal cliff deal restores transit benefit

Congress reached a deal to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," and transit riders get a bonus: the Senate included a provision raising the federal transit benefit to $240 per month.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Today, employers can offer their workers a pretax deduction for transit of up to $125 per month, and some employers, including the federal government, will give that much in transit fare to workers outright as an extra perk. The benefit was $230 per month until the beginning of last year, when a provision in the law expired and it reset to a lower level.

There's a similar benefit for parking costs, but workers can deduct more than for transit—up to $240 per month since the start of 2012. Some members of Congress had been trying to restore parity between transit and parking benefits, and got it into the Senate's transportation bill in March, but the provision didn't survive into the final bill.

The bill Congress just approved for the "fiscal cliff" contains this provision, meaning benefits go up to $240 per month, several people have confirmed. Unfortunately, it's still only temporary, as this new level expires again at the end of 2013 unless Congress extends it once more.

Technically, the new level is also retroactive until the start of 2012, but unlike with tax credits you can claim on this April's taxes for activities in 2012, there's no way for riders to realistically take advantage of it for months gone by.

Tom Bulger, a WMATA board member and lobbyist who's been pushing for the extension, noted that Congressional Republicans had been strongly opposed to any changes in law that increase any taxes, including letting previous tax cuts expire, but hadn't extended that same passion to the transit benefit.

Even if House Republicans just went along somewhat reluctantly with a Senate deal yesterday, in approving this extension, they were now able to give many American workers a tax cut along with helping our cities function more effectively and ending one small example of the many ways government "picks winners and losers" among transportation modes.


Breakfast tweets: Drops on Metro

Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.
  • Weekend ridership falls on Metro after aggressive trackwork starts (Examiner, @kytja, @perkinsms)
  • Crime on Metro drops in 3rd quarter of 2011 (Post, @vebah)
  • A group of senators is pushing to extend the commuter tax benefit before it runs out (The Hill, @ajfroggie)
  • Even the Competitive Enterprise Institute opposes GOP plan to subsidize roads with oil drilling revenue (National Review, @MilesGrant)
  • Study shows WI "non-users fork over $779 per household for roads, as opposed to $50 for transit" (Streetsblog, @MilesGrant)
  • Whole Foods in Riverdale Park delayed again; town unhappy with proposed connection to surrounding n'hoods (Patch, @justupthepike)
  • In DC, you're 4x more likely to have somebody drive into you on purpose than anywhere else on the planet (NPR, @cityglaze)
  • Staunton News Leader calls on @BobMcDonnell to support a higher gas tax (News Leader, @MilesGrant)
  • London Tube Map made out of Drinking Straws by artist Kyle Bean (The Slow Hunch, @nickgrossman, @perkinsms)
  • Gabe Klein grew up in a Virginia ashram and played D&D with Rivers Cuomo (Grid Chicago, @Naparstek, @bogrosemary)


Could transit benefits attract zoo members?

Any avid "zoogoer" will tell you that becoming a Friend of the National Zoo (FONZ) is a no-brainer. For car owners, one perk stands out among the generous benefits: free parking.

Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo on Flickr.

A quick cost-benefit analysis shows why drivers appreciate the free parking benefit, in particular. Up to three hours of parking in the zoo lots would cost $15 according to the recently revised parking rates.

A household, for example, pays $60 tax-deductible dues per year. Even in the unlikely case that the family exclusively joined the for the free parking, the break-even would be four trips at the most. Four trips in a year is nothing for folks who love to visit our zoo.

Drivers receive free parking. For those who travel to the zoo by transit, bike, or foot, what kind of perk could the National Zoo offer that would create equally compelling reason to join?

It's important to note that parking is not necessarily the main or only reason that people become a FONZ. Some donors join the zoo at the household or individual member level (or higher) simply because they want to support the National Zoo. Some members like the reciprocal discounted or free admission at over 100 other zoos and aquariums.

The discounts on food and souvenirs are nice. And there's the not-so-widely-publicized free bag of animal crackers for members' children at the customer service/stroller rental kiosks. All of these benefits, a cool magazine and supporting the zoo accrue to members whether someone uses the zoo parking lots or not.

Increasing visitor traffic arriving by means other than car would help the zoo, even beyond the increase in people able to enjoy and appreciate the animals. More foot traffic at the exhibits would drive additional concession revenue. Heavy vehicle congestion on busy days often causes the zoo to use its finite police force to direct traffic. Full parking lots lead to long waits in idling cars, unsatisfied visitors who decide to leave rather than wait and increased attempts to park on nearby neighborhood streets.

A FONZ member benefits program for non-drivers would need to be compelling for visitors and easy for the zoo to administer. It also would need to make financial sense to the zoo, with the new benefits costing the same if not less per member visit than the costs of offering free parking. (This posting will not examine the costs of free parking, as it has been covered and debated in other postings.)

Bus/Rail: Could the zoo and Metro develop a way to provide discounts on Metro Rail or Metro Bus trips when FONZ members visit the zoo?

Bike: Could the zoo permit the setup of Capital BikeShare locations with special incentives for FONZ members when they dock a bike at the zoo? Could the zoo, in partnership with local bike shops, purchase discount gift cards for distribution to zoo members who park their own bike in a designated area at the zoo for at least a certain amount of time?

Walk: Could the zoo provide additional FONZ member benefits for those who walk to the zoo from their neighborhood or hotel?

Car: Could the zoo modify existing free parking benefits to encourage families or friends with multiple memberships to carpool instead of each using their free parking with a separate vehicle?

Understandably, it's easy for the zoo to provide free parking. It's a well established process in use by recreational facilities and malls around the world. It's easy to verify whether someone arrived by car. (However, as the January 1, 2011 change in parking rates from unlimited to "up to three hours" shows, a site needs to ensure that the free parking is not abused.)

Transit, bike, or foot benefits for zoo members would take some analysis and integration by the zoo and potential partners such as Metro and Capital Bikeshare. These new benefits would not be free, though neither is the existing parking benefit truly free.

How could the National Zoo could provide these or other innovative benefits for FONZ members who arrive by transit, bike or foot?


Is the federal transit benefit actually bad?

The federal government should discontinue the transit benefit.

Photo by aliciagriffin.

Now that I have your attention, hear me out.

Federal employees in the national capital region get direct transportation up to $230 per month, which they can use to pay for transit or vanpool service. To qualify for the benefit, they have to give up parking privileges.

While this policy encourages transit use and discourages single occupancy vehicle commuting, it does that in a way that encourages Metro and other transit providers to increase fares. The policy also ignores the benefits to society and to employees of shorter commutes, like those on bikes or on foot. Eliminating both the transit and parking benefits and providing employees with flexible funds for transportation would remove these problematic incentives.

When WMATA proposes increasing peak hour fares, many commuters are not affected, because they receive a transit subsidy which covers their whole commute. This reduces the pressure on WMATA to hold down fares for everyone, and encourages a fare policy that attempts to raise peak fares even higher to collect more of this subsidy. Meanwhile, the cost difference between peak rail and bus grows, causing poorer residents to take much longer and less efficient bus routes to save money.

Another example of a transit agency reacting to this policy was when Fairfax Connector raised the fare on their Reston to Pentagon express routes. The $7 one-way fare was over the $230 limit, but what kind of support do you think an increase of 133% would have if most of that change were paid by riders?

The policy encourages long-distance commutes, by making a short bus or rail ride effectively the same cost as an extended ride on MARC or VRE. But those shorter rides don't cost the regional governments the same. Commuter rail infrastructure is expensive, and VRE, for example, is becoming limited in capacity by their railway fleet. Long-distance Metro riders take up space in crowded railcars which could go to people currently being left at stations because the cars are full.

The policy of free, unlimited transit ignores an even cheaper, self propelled mode of transit: walking and cycling. A work colleague lives just two blocks away, and has a five minute commute. Another rides his bike from Alexandria more than one day a week. Yet my commute, from Falls Church, receives more government support, even though theirs is even more energy efficient, environmentally friendly, and healthier.

So how could we change this? First, instead of giving away parking and then giving everyone free transit of they don't use it, give everyone the same amount of money that they can use on any mode they like. Start charging market rates for parking, but increase pay by something like $150 a month.

Walking or biking would be encouraged, transit riders would be encouraged to choose shorter commutes where they can, and driving would still be discouraged, but allowed. The policy would be more flexible, allowing people to choose to occasionally ride a bike, take transit or even drive, paying only for what they use, rather than having a choice between unlimited parking or essentially unlimited transit. Transit providers would no longer be able to see federal employees as a ready source of revenue without complaints. They would likely have to seek a more balanced fare policy that spreads out the cost among all riders.

Most importantly, charging people for what they use is efficient and fundamentally fair. The federal government and other employers with similar policies should encourage this efficiency and fairness by giving every employee a flat benefit and changing free parking to paid parking.

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