How WSP Global strives to conquer the commuting conundrum

Commuting is a part of daily life for almost 16 million Canadians, with the average person spending 24 minutes driving or 45 minutes on public transit to get to work, according to figures from the 2016 census.

The roads are, of course, getting busier as the number of commuters has grown by 3.7 million over the last 20 years. The issue is of particular concern in Canada’s biggest cities. According to the census figures, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal have one-way commutes that are longer than the national average of about 26 minutes. Torontonians spend 34 minutes each way getting to work, compared to about 30 minutes in Montreal and Vancouver.

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Commuting, then, can be a significant workplace concern. In the case of one company in Oakville, Ont., it considered both the time and environmental impact of its employees’ commutes when it relocated offices about a year ago.

“When it came up time for looking to relocate, we definitely wanted to look at staying within the area and looking, seeing what we could do to move in a location so it would improve the ability of our employees to commute in many different ways,” says Duncan Campbell, manager of transportation for highways at engineering consulting company WSP Global Inc.

Campbell notes his former company, MMM Group Ltd., had participated in the Smart Commute program since 2008. Smart Commute, a program of Ontario government agency Metrolinx, has more than 340 companies working with it to provide assessments of employee commuting habits, action plans outlining better travel options and tools such as discounted transit passes and walking, cycling, telecommuting and carpool programs. Having merged with MMM Group in 2015, WSP is now participating in the program.

Addressing the challenge

When it came time to move offices, the company assembled a stakeholder group and found commuting was a major issue, according to Campbell.

“So we engaged with our Smart Commute reps at that time. We found a location that seemed to meet the criteria. Location-wise, it was within a very short distance of the GO station,” says Campbell, referring to the Toronto area’s commuter train service. “And it’s in the area of Oakville’s midtown core area, where it’s going to be developed. So we’re kind of on the leading edge going into the midtown core. There’s a few developments within the area, and that was a big factor.”

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The engagement with the local Smart Commute office began in early 2016, says Campbell. “And through that, we ran several different workshops where they gathered information to do an analysis of some different ways of promoting different forms of commuting and how we could encourage staff to commute in different ways — you know, more responsible.”

Part of the company’s goal for the new building was to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification. To that end, it introduced sustainability aspects, such as designated carpooling areas and electric car-charging stations. WSP also worked with development company First Gulf, Smart Commute, the Town of Oakville and Oakville Transit to start a new bus route in January 2017 to connect the office and surrounding area to the nearby Oakville GO station. The route, a short loop offering service during rush hours, completes a full circuit in about 10 minutes.

About three per cent of the company’s approximately 240 employees use the new bus route. While those numbers are fairly low, 27 per cent of employees carpool, with up to about two per cent cycling to work.

The electric car-charging stations have also affected the buying habits of some employees.

“I think it’s five or six employees who have electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles. And we’ve actually noticed that some employees have actually switched. So when they’ve gone to buy a new vehicle, they’ve actually taken that into account and bought,” says Campbell, referring to hybrid or electric cars.

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The carpooling numbers were greater than expected, according to Shveta Shukla, an environmental planner at WSP and the office’s Smart Commute representative. She says the company only expected 15 per cent of employees to carpool, compared to the 27 per cent who are actually doing it.

“And also, drive-alone trips have dropped to 62 per cent with the move, compared to 76 per cent who had originally planned to drive alone,” says Shukla.

WSP and Smart Commute also developed individual commuting plans for more than 30 employees to help them find their way to work in the most efficient way. The plans consider issues such as employees’ mode of travel, where they’re coming from and the best routes and times available to them, says Campbell.

The employer’s role

So why would an employer spend so much time on commuting issues? Besides the environmental considerations, commuting affects employers in a number of ways, including employee morale and talent retention, according to one Vancouver consultant.

“Employers have an interest in ensuring employees have a smooth commute, right? You want your employees to come to work happy to be there, relatively relaxed, not completely stressed about traffic or trying to plan their day so that they leave before the traffic starts or they can catch that bus before it gets too full or whatever. So you want your employees to not necessarily be bothered with those types of anxieties or worries,” says Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting Inc.

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Pau notes that while it’s not always possible for smaller companies to do much about commutes, employers should try to do whatever they can.

“I think employers should try, if possible and they have the means to, to make that commute easier, because all that’s going to do is allow you to attract and retain staff better,” she says. “If people know that you’re concerned about their commutes, that you’re concerned about them, you’re thinking about their well-being and their welfare, they will think, ‘Well, that’s a good employer.’”

Current trends, according to Pau, include carpooling and encouraging employees to bike to work.

“We have some clients that will encourage this more green philosophy. So they’re encouraging people to walk to work or bike to work or subsidizing employees with bike equipment or paying for their helmets or their wet gear for riding their bikes, just to encourage more people to do that,” she says.

Other trends include eliminating commutes, at least partially, through work-from-home options. Employers have also adopted flexible start times to allow employees to avoid rush hour.

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The benefits of options like carpooling also include improved camaraderie, according to Amna Basit, program coordinator at Metrolinx. Some people, she notes, have found sharing a ride to work has helped foster better personal and working relationships.

And while it may not be an employer’s first priority, Pau feels commuting is something employers should consider. “It’s not going to get any better unless our transportation infrastructure or transit systems are going to be that much more improved, and that’s not going to be an overnight process,” she says.

Ryan Murphy is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.