We have done four surveying outings so far, and have interviewed 24 employees and 3 employers, spread over 10 businesses. In addition, we have contacted the employers for most of the businesses where we were only able to interview employees, and at two additional businesses (Cheesecake Factory and Slider Bar). Our next step is to arrange telephone interviews with the employers we are missing, since that seems to be the most convenient way for them to speak with us.
We have been turned down outright by only two businesses.
As we’ve conducted surveys, we’ve refined our questions and also incorporated ongoing feedback and requests from Wendy Silvani, our contact at the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association. She has given us much clearer guidelines now about what she wants in our reports, one of which we are to present to the TMA at their March 3rd meeting, and the other of which will be our final deliverable at the end of the quarter. She has also asked us to include questions in our survey about the Residential Preferential Parking permit program, or RPP, which has brought up other issues in that it seems some employees are much more enthusiastic about subsidized parking than subsidized transit.
For the Redwood City Project, we have finished a baseline comparison of Palo Alto’s survey and the various Redwood City surveys to see what questions all of them address. The most detailed Redwood City survey, from Commute.org, considers many more variables than any other survey including Palo Alto’s. The next step is to begin visualizing the data from this survey so it can be compared to Palo Alto’s survey.
What We Observed and Learned
We have already noticed some key themes in our surveys. In general, it is difficult to determine the best level of subsidy is, since the initial costs vary widely from case to case based on what transit agencies different employees take.
- Some cases are very simple. Employees would use just one transit agency, and therefore only need to load one monthly pass on their Clipper card. The level of subsidy that would encourage them to take transit is easily quantified. Some of these people already have passes, and saying yes to a cheaper one is a no-brainer.
- Some cases are lost causes. Employees live in an area with little or no access to public transportation (e.g. Los Altos Hills) and would not use transit even if it were fully subsidized. Or they work at times and/or on days when transit would be either too slow or too infrequent for any subsidy to make using transit worthwhile. This program simply would not address their needs.
- A number of cases so far have been been much more complex. Some employees may live in an area that require multiple public transit options or require transfers between agencies, so the pricing structure can get trickier. For example, somebody living in Mountain View could take 1) VTA alone, 2) Caltrain alone, or 3) a mix of VTA and Caltrain. Caltrain offers free transfers to VTA with a 2-zone or greater monthly pass, but the Caltrain commute from Mountain View to Palo Alto is within one zone.
- Some employees also work multiple jobs, which require them to use multiple transit agencies, or while they could take transit to one job, they might need or prefer to drive to the other.
It has been challenging to survey employers because the managers/supervisors are rarely in when we visit, and it is very difficult to coordinate return visits when the three of us are available at the same time as the employers. However, we have managed to survey a few. The three employers we surveyed were for Philz Coffee and Aquarius, which are franchises, and Gate Cleaners, a small drycleaner. Philz is not willing to take on any part of the subsidy, and Aquarius would have to talk to its parent company, Landmark Theaters. In our brief conversation with a manager at the Cheesecake Factory, they expressed a similar concern that providing a subsidy was out of their hands. We worry this will be a common issue with chains and franchises. The owner of Gate Cleaners only employs three people and seemed to feel strongly that a parking pass would be of more use to her employees than a subsidized transit pass.
We also had one focus group at the Garden Court Hotel. We were not informed of how many employees would be participating, and were expecting 2-4 along with the manager, but when we arrived there were 12 employees and we were told the manager was not in that day. This was an unexpected twist but we did our best to adapt the survey to a much larger group on the fly. It was rocky but we were able to get the information we needed, if not in the most well-facilitated way.
Critical Analysis / Moving Forward
Here are some questions we have so far:
- How will we determine the level of subsidy, given the varying costs for different cases? Would it be a flat subsidy rate, or dependent on the different transit agencies?
- Could PATMA provide subsidies for employee commutes that extended beyond just their job in Palo Alto? In the case of somebody working other jobs outside of Palo Alto, could the program cover those commutes as well?
- Would PATMA be willing to subsidize 2-zone Caltrain passes just to provide the VTA benefit (such as in the case of the Mountain View employee)? We will run into similar questions regarding cases involving transit transfer and/or multiple transit options.
We will need to do more research on the cases with transfers and multiple transit options, and talk to more employers, especially those that are not franchises.
One of our biggest tasks going forward is to begin thinking about marketing. Wendy wants us to present ideas for how to market this program, which will require us to consider a) who we want to market to (i.e. employers, employees, or both), and b) how best to make the program sound attractive to someone who doesn’t already take transit. We also have to keep in mind that our survey has been far from comprehensive and there are likely groups and cases that are underrepresented or unrepresented in our data.
For Redwood City’s project, the comparison to Palo Alto’s data may be somewhat hampered by the fact that we do not have access to the original spreadsheet for the Commute.org survey. This means we cannot make any additional cross-tabulations, but can only visualize the data one variable at a time. We can do additional cross-tabulations for one of the less-detailed surveys, but that will be a second priority since the reach of that survey was not as broad, nor did it cover as many questions as the Commute.org survey.