One air regulatory district works to lessen air impact from work commute

This week (Sept. 21st to Sept. 27th) on the Air Quality Matters blog content focused on air quality as it has to do with transportation. This is evident in “To sequester harmful emissions start with transportation” parts 1 and 2, both dealing with the aspect of freight or goods movement.

Part 1 has to do with trucks while the second part focuses on trains and planes.

Today, the spotlight is on still another aspect of transportation: the work commute and what is being done in California’s San Francisco Bay Area to lessen the commute impact on area air quality.

First-hand knowledge

Aerial view of San Francisco taken from space
Aerial view of San Francisco taken from space

I’m no stranger to traffic congestion. This phenomenon and I go way, way back; back to the late ‘70s, in fact, when I lived in Mt. View and worked in Sunnyvale, both Bay Area communities. Working in the electronics field, my work commute, one way, was all of six miles. Morning commute time: 30 minutes. Afternoon commute time: 45 minutes.

So, think about it: an hour-and-a-quarter on average to travel 12 miles. That’s all of 9.6 miles per hour – not exactly lightning speed. I could have biked to work and back faster. Also think back to seventies California, just after automotive catalytic converter systems were made mandatory in 1975 (I know the clunker I owned and drove then didn’t have one) and before the statewide implementation of the California Smog Check program in 1984. For more on this, see: “Key Events in the History of Air Quality in California” here.

Oh, how times have changed!

An innovative (carrot and stick, sort of) approach

In “Best air pollution control: A carrot or stick approach?” I asked what was more effective in mitigating air pollution – “by providing incentives or enacting laws requiring compliance and then seeing to it constituents comply through the work of law enforcement.”

Bike-diamond-lane[1]Well, related to this is the (San Francisco) Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (BAAQMD) “Commuter Benefits Program,” the provisions of which are described in its Mar. 26, 2014 press release: “Air District and MTC Approve Commuter Benefits Pilot Program.”

The pilot program goal “is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion by using the federal tax code to encourage employees to commute via alternatives to driving alone,” the BAAQMD noted. “The law is designed to give employers various options for compliance, including simply offering their employees the ability to pay for transit or vanpooling with pre-tax dollars, which can save both employers and employees money through lower taxes. The program was modeled on commuter benefit ordinances established in 2009 in San Francisco, Berkeley and Richmond, as well as at San Francisco International Airport.” The pilot program is due to become fully effective on Sept. 30, 2014, legislators to decide to continue or curb the program in 2017, according to Denis Cuff in the Contra Costa Times.

The BAAQMD in the release went on to stress, “[e]mployees are more likely to consider alternatives if they are encouraged by their employer,” and added: “Research shows that employers can reduce vehicle trips to their worksites by promoting alternative commute modes, such as transit, ridesharing, bicycling, walking and telecommuting.”

Who is affected, who benefits

According to Cuff, the 9,600 Bay Area employers having at least 50 workers who are employed full-time must comply. In the Bay Area, two-thirds of workers are single-occupant car commuters while a little over 1 in 10 rides public transit.

The four separate commuter benefits program options offered are:

  1. “Pre-Tax Benefit – Allow employees to exclude up to $130 of their transit or vanpooling expenses each month from taxable income,
  2. “Employer-Provided Subsidy – Provide a subsidy to reduce or cover employees’ monthly transit or vanpool costs, up to $75 per month,
  3. “Employer-Provided Transit – Provide a free or low-cost transit service for employees, such as a bus, shuttle or vanpool service,
  4. “Alternative Commuter Benefit – Provide an alternative commuter benefit that is as effective in reducing single-occupancy commute trips as Options 1, 2 or 3.”

(Source: “Air District and MTC Approve Commuter Benefits Pilot Program,” Bay Area Air Quality Management District, press release, Mar. 26, 2014)

Smart Growth, Emeryville, Calif., style
Smart Growth, Emeryville, Calif., style

From this one effort alone, will the San Francisco Bay Area commute become less congested and encumbered than what is currently the case and if so, will air quality, which for all intents and purposes is already pretty good, improve even more as a result? I think there is promise here. Important to note also is that the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) rail commuter service is slated to be up and running (rolling, actually) between Santa Rosa and San Rafael and possibly to Larkspur by 2016, which should serve to provide even more benefit.

If successful, there is potential for the “Commuter Benefits Program” and other effective strategies to serve as models. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Image at top: NASA

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