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Seattle Children’s Hospital, Sonos offer big incentives to drive less, exercise more

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Bike parking at the Seattle Children’s Hospital (Adam Coppola via the Green Lane Project, Flickr).

By Adam Russell of Mobility Lab

When Sonos wanted to move its Santa Barbara headquarters into a new downtown location, the wireless-speaker company became very aware of the potential traffic impacts. After all, the company’s previous location had been two small buildings outside of the city core. And the city of Santa Barbara had its own site requirements for the new office, part of which called for a reduction in driving commute trips.

But rather than do just the minimum of outreach to employees about non-driving options, Sonos went full-on with an ambitious commuter program, called SmartRide, which gave employees the option to ultimately earn themselves a brand-new bicycle.

Speaking at the Association for Commuter Transportation annual conference this month in Portland, Oregon, Sonos senior facilities manager Allison Griffin explained how the company sees transportation options as a way to attract new employees and improve the work-life balance.

Sonos’ SmartRide program was more than a new bicycle – the company chose to offer employees two paths. In the “fast cash” option, employees could cash-out of their parking, receiving some of that money instead as a daily bonus for their non-driving commutes. After a certain number of biking commutes, the employee would receive $600 toward a new bicycle at a local bike shop. The “flexible” option keeps driving to on-site parking as an option, has lower cash bonuses for active trips, and requires more trips in order to earn the bicycle credit. A vacation-day raffle, with entries generated through biking trips, was also integrated into the system.

An internal survey of Sonos staff informed this incentive structure. Nearly two-thirds of employees lived within five miles of the campus and 86 percent said they preferred not to drive, suggesting a high potential to move people towards biking commutes.

Griffin reported that more people enrolled in the parking-less, “fast cash” option than the “flexible” alternative. Eventually, the campus was covered with new bikes, the visibility of which helped draw the attention and enrollment of even more employees. A year later, 38 percent of employees are participating, and Sonos plans to adapt the SmartRide program to its other locations in Boston and Seattle.

While not every employer has such a high potential for a bike-to-work modeshare, many stand to gain from small shifts away from excessive employee driving by bonding with the surrounding community to alleviating expensive parking crunches.

SCH location

SCH’s location outside of downtown Seattle (Google Maps).

The Seattle Children’s Hospital is one employer uniquely attuned to that parking demand. On an average day, the hospital draws about 6,000 people, but only has 1,200 parking spots. In addition, as a condition for its future expansion, Seattle mandated that the hospital reduce its drive-alone commutes to 30 percent by 2030, an ambitious goal for an employer located outside the city’s urban core.

Jamie Cheney, the hospital’s director of transportation, explained at the ACT conference how parking had been addressed twofold: by allowing only daily rates that are adjusted annually (since monthly rates ultimately create a driving incentive), and by subsidizing non-driving commuters. Similar to Sonos, they loan bikes to employees who ride at least two days a week, even offering biking classes and a service shop on-campus. Any employee who logs a non-driving commute trip receives a $4 bonus.

The hospital is already well on its way to the ambitious drive-alone goal: in the last 20 years, it has reduced the number of commutes by single-occupant vehicles by 35 percentage points – to 38 percent. About 20 percent of employees carpool and another 20 percent take transit, and the 9 percent biking rate is just short of its 10 percent goal.

As a children’s hospital, Cheney noted that SCH has a unique driver for reducing driving, idling, and congestion around its campus: many patients suffer from respiratory conditions that are exacerbated by nearby car exhaust. Asthma and bronchitis comprise the first and third, respectively, most common reasons for admission to the hospital. Depending on an employer or building’s demography and location, the rationale behind “transportation demand management” investments often extends past the more immediate traffic concerns.

The slate of incentives that Sonos and Seattle Children’s Hospital offer aren’t exactly the norm for TDM programs – each company has unique circumstances that informs their potential offerings. But the two case studies demonstrate the full array of options available to employers that can help influence employees’ commuting decisions.