Commuter Culture

The daily commute is changing.

Striving to reduce their carbon footprint and help employees save on fuel costs, a growing number of footwear firms are offering alternative commuting programs such as carpooling.

“There’s been a significant increase in carpooling requests over the last few months with the rising cost of gas,” said Nike spokesperson Kate Myers.

More than ever, companies are introducing formal commuting programs or expanding ones that are already in place. But most of these firms have environmental awareness in their DNA. “Nothing I am working on has anything to do with rising fuel costs,” said Michelle Cvitkovic, employee transportation coordinator for REI. The Kent, Wash.-based retailer has had a large-scale vanpooling program for several years, but when gas prices hit $4 a gallon, participation levels spiked. Still, Cvitkovic said, “I am not reaching out to my teammates because of gas prices. I am reaching out because we want to be carbon neutral by 2020, and this is one piece of that.”

Sole Technology is also zeroing in on employee commuting as part of a larger effort to reduce its carbon emissions. “We identified that our employee commuting patterns contributed roughly 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually,” said Roian Atwood, the Lake Forest, Calif.-based company’s environmental coordinator. “Now that we have identified that number and our target [carpooling] participation rate of about 30 percent, we are hoping to reduce that amount by about 900,000 pounds.”

For some companies, however, setting concrete goals presents its own set of challenges. “Globally, we have more than 5,500 employees, and every time I’ve tried to survey people in all these countries, I get really poor data,” said Betsy Blaisdell, manager of environmental stewardship for Stratham, N.H.-based Timberland Co. Blaisdell is prepping for the launch of a Web-based program that will allow Timberland staffers to track their alternative commuting activities for incentive purposes, such as corporate giveaways. “My goal is to get 100 percent participation in this program so I can track how people can reduce their carbon emissions,” she said.

While skyrocketing gas prices alone offer plenty of incentive for staffers to share rides to work, employers are creating their own reward systems for conscientious commuters. In prior years, several companies made headlines by contributing to the purchase of hybrid vehicles for employees, but now they are rethinking that tactic in light of today’s circumstances. The hybrid incentive is starting to give way to plans that are open to other types of commuters. “What I’ve struggled with over the last year is that the hybrid benefit is great, but not everybody can access it,” Blaisdell said. “There are employees living in different countries where hybrid vehicles are not available. We also have employees who are looking to purchase cars in the near future that are not hybrids, but have a higher fuel efficiency than hybrids.”

Patagonia, which has an alternative transportation council, recently decided to eliminate its hybrid incentive program. “Our main purpose in developing the program was to encourage employees to make better choices and help the new technology grow,” explained Lisa Myers, environmental programs manager for the Ventura, Calif.-based company. “Now that hybrids have taken off and become mainstream, the council has decided to reevaluate the best place to spend the dollars.”

Alternative commuting options such as carpooling encourage staffers to rethink their schedule and force employers to be more flexible. “We spent a lot of time in the advisory sessions working out guidelines for participating. For example, you can’t plan meetings after 4 p.m.,” Sole Tech’s Atwood said. “Some of the department heads are going to have to realize that when someone raises their hand and says, “I have to make my carpool,’ that that’s acceptable.”

Companies are also recognizing that to make alternative commutes successful, they need to address employees’ transportation needs during the workday. “We have a bike fleet [for staffers] to go to meetings or to pick up lunch,” Atwood said. “We also have a bicycle repair station and workshop available after hours for personal bikes.”

REI used grant money to purchase two “car shares” for its headquarters. The cars are available free of charge to all alternative commuters for any short trips and errands they may need to make during the day.

But even the workday is in flux. “Our customized work environment [initiative] takes a hard look at what a work schedule is, and how you can make that work for the individual and the team. It could include telecommuting; four, 10-hour days; 9/80s [nine-hour days with every other Friday off]; split shifts — different variable schedules to meet family or personal obligations,” said Cvitkovic.

Sole Technology just voted to implement an alternative workweek at its headquarters. Staffers will work a 9/80 schedule. “For those Friday sessions, basically half the office will be in operation — half the computers running, half the overhead lights — so the energy savings from the facility standpoint adds up and can be quite significant,” Atwood said.

Of course, smaller companies have the advantage of being able to incorporate these kinds of policies quickly and more completely. End Outdoor purchased Web cams for its sales reps to reduce travel to and from its Portland, Ore., headquarters for meetings. “Whenever we talk about sustainability,” said Ben Finklea, president and co-founder of End, “we always try to bring the economic part of it back into the discussion because that’s really the thing that fuels whether people will change or not.”


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