Changing worker’s commutes from driving to mass transit can be hard

A new study looks at how the World Wildlife Fund successfully pushed workers to switch to mass transit when they moved their offices:

Last fall, the World Wildlife Fund moved its U.K. headquarters from Godalming to Woking. One of the main reasons given for the move was the desire for a more sustainable work environment. To that end, the company encouraged employees to trade their car commute for the train; Woking had much better rail connection anyway, and for six months after the move WWF-UK paid the fare difference for workers whose rail costs rose or who switched from driving…

In a word, the decline in car commuting, and related rise in train use, was remarkable. The share of employees driving to work fell from 55 percent, when the office had been in Godalming, to roughly 23 percent a week after the move to Woking (and 29 percent a month later). The share using the train, meanwhile, did just the reverse: rising from 18.5 percent before to 56 percent after the move. The use of other modes, including cycling, walking, car-share, and bus, remained pretty steady, all under 10 percent…

In simple terms, that finding merely echoes what we all know: old habits die hard. But in terms of encouraging new commute behavior, it’s a critical insight, because it establishes a timeline for intervention. If a commuter mode-shift program isn’t sustained for long enough, there’s a real possibility of relapse, since the old habits tend to linger even after the new one starts to form, and since the new one doesn’t reach the power of the old even after a month…

Some might consider WWF-UK a best-case commute-shift scenario. These are environmentally conscious workers, after all, and the new transit option was much more appealing (the train station at Woking was a 7-minute walk from the office, compared with 25 minutes at Godalming). Then again, driving wasn’t exactly a huge hassle here: the new office sits right on top of a parking lot, and WWF-UK subsidized employee parking for six months after the move.

An interesting question to consider. It sounds like the study primarily puts this in terms of the habits and patterns of the employees but making the switch to mass transit may not be so simple. For example, employees might initially choose where to live based on the mode of their commuting. If the company suddenly moves, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone can now take the train.

How much does it matter that this relocation primarily took place in a suburban context? It is one thing if a company moved from Westerminister to the City in London proper. Here, the move was more on the periphery of the metropolitan area as Woking is 23 miles out. Certain companies might attract more urban employees, perhaps younger couples or those interested in certain political or social causes, making a move to an area with more mass transit more attractive.

In the end, how much does this one case tell us about larger commuting habits that are hard to break?

One thought on “Changing worker’s commutes from driving to mass transit can be hard

  1. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving | Legally Sociable

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