By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
One characteristic of the "millennial generation" — those born between 1980 and 2000 — is that they are less dependent on automobiles to get around. According to the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Americans are driving less today than they were a decade ago; younger Americans are waiting longer to get their driver's license; and travel on public transit systems is nearing all-time highs in many U.S. cities.
And according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), there were 10.5 billon trips taken on mass transit systems last year, the second-highest annual total since 1957.
To U.S transit agencies, this generational shift in transportation preferences represents an ideal opportunity to help local employers map out the best way for their employees to get to work. And many employers, eager to recruit a younger generation of workers to replace retiring baby boomers, are all too ready to hear transit agencies' marketing pitch.
Although a number of agencies have been reaching out to businesses, many are stepping up employer outreach efforts by adding commuter benefit programs, organizing transit-information fairs at worksites and enlisting transit "ambassadors" or "coordinators" who can personally map out a worker's commute via rail or bus.
"The worker is our primary target market," says Rose Sheridan, vice president of marketing and communications at APTA, which estimates that 60 percent of all trips taken on public transportation are work commutes.
Currently, the most common outreach effort involves the promotion of benefit programs that allow commuters to use pre-tax dollars to pay for transit costs. Businesses are using such programs as an incentive to attract and retain new employees, says Susan Forsberg, an employee outreach coordinator at Metro Transit in Minneapolis/St. Paul who works with some of the largest businesses in the area.
"My main goal is to help them help their employees find an easier, smoother and faster commute," she says.
Cheaper than driving
One of Metro Transit's most popular employer programs is Metropass, which grants users to unlimited access to all regional rail and bus lines for $76 per month or less if the employer subsidizes the cost. The pass can help the commuter save up to half the cost of regular transit fees.
Employers that enroll in Metropass also benefit from the program.
"If they can help their employees with their commutes by using transit, their employees are getting to work on time and the employers have fewer issues with parking at their facilities," says Forsberg, who has helped more than 100 major employers sign up for the program.
Businesses have told Forsberg they use the Metropass as an employee retention tool.
"If one of your employees is offered a job at another company that doesn't offer Metropass, that employee looks at the shared cost of having to drive their car to work and park it — that can be a $200 to $300 a month expense for the employee," she says.
Employers' interest in rail and other transit programs has risen along with the price of gasoline, says Kim Taylor, marketing manager for the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) in Charlotte, N.C. As part of its outreach efforts, CATS helps employers designate internal "employee transportation coordinators," or ETCs, to serve as transportation-information liaisons on issues such as setting up pre-tax commuter benefits and workplace transit fairs. About 75 Charlotte-area businesses now participate in the ETC program.
"There’s nothing like having a one-on-one conversation with someone who has never used public transit, to explain how safe it is, how much money they can save and how it’s good for the environment," says Taylor.
Reaching out to new territory
Employer outreach becomes even more important as transit agencies expand service by building new rail lines, says APTA's Sheridan.
For example, Metro Transit and the "transportation management organizations" in the Twin Cities' area have been communicating with employers, neighborhood groups and community organizations along the developing Central Corridor light-rail route. Known as the Green Line, the route will link downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul when it opens in 2014.
In preparation for the opening, employers in the education and health service sectors have banded together to determine how they can strengthen their employees' connections to the rail line. Metro Transit is assisting the employers with a survey to learn more about their workers' current commuting habits and decipher how to best serve their needs when the line opens, says Metro Transit Public Relations Manager John Siqveland.
Business outreach will ramp up even more once the Green Line opens, not only to encourage workers to use the line, but to convince businesses' customers to use it, as well.
"We really see the Green Line as a great opportunity because more people will be interested in exploring rail," says Jessica Treat, executive director of St. Paul Smart Trips, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve travel in and around St. Paul.
Although their transit marketing efforts target all age groups, Metro Transit and St. Paul Smart Trips officials believe there’s an advantage in reaching out to younger millennials by offering discounted transit passes to University of Minnesota students and those attending private colleges. And last year, Metro Transit began offering a discounted transit pass to some Minneapolis high schools. The passes can be used not only to travel to and from school, but to and from other locations.
As the Green Line's opening approaches, more college campuses are expressing an interest in promoting transit passes among their employees and students, says Damian Goebel, marketing, communications and outreach director at St. Paul Smart Trips.
"As a former student who used the Go-To-College pass, I saw [transit] as an amazingly economical option," he says. "And as more of the private colleges in St. Paul expand, parking becomes an issue. So, more students may need that option to get to and from school, jobs or whatever the case might be."
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