In an effort to encourage city employees to bike and bus more, Boston is picking up a large chunk of its workers’ public transit tabs.
A new city program is covering the full cost of annual Bluebikes memberships and 65 percent of the cost of monthly MBTA passes for city employees — a maximum monthly total value of about $245. It’s a significant change from the previous benefits package which included annual Bluebikes passes for $60 and the ability to purchase T passes using pre-tax dollars.
Fewer than 100 employees had been taking advantage of the older Bluebikes benefit and around 730 were using the pre-tax benefit for a T pass. But since the new Bluebikes program launched in September, more than 550 employees have signed up, according to Alex Lawrence, the city’s chief people officer, and more than 550 new enrollees are taking advantage of the transit pass program, which debuted in January.
Around 17,500 employees are eligible for the benefits, Lawrence said. A city spokesperson said the “goal is for every employee that would benefit from this to sign up.”
For the program’s first year, the city has allocated around $850,000, Lawrence said. The new initiatives are part of Mayor Michelle Wu’s “commitment to active and sustainable transportation” with the aim of making the city an “employer of choice,” a Wednesday press release said.
“We get to walk the walk as an employer as an example of what we want other employers in Boston to emulate,” Lawrence said. “This is a slam dunk way we can show our values.”
Additionally, Boston employees can get up to $150 of yearly expenses related to bikes, scooters, helmets, gear, and maintenance for their bike or scooter though their health insurance, and will also soon be eligible for $200 more for maintenance through the city, Lawrence said.
The new benefits are the result of a campaign by city employees who have been advocating for improved bike and transit benefits since 2020, said Kat Eshel, chief of staff for the city’s environment, energy, and open space cabinet. The city conducted a commuting survey in May 2021 confirming employee interest, Eshel said.
Boston’s employee benefits now appear to rival neighboring municipalities. Cambridge director of environmental and transportation planning Susanne Rasmussen said the city also covers 65 percent of MBTA monthly passes and provides free Bluebikes memberships to employees. A spokesperson for Somerville said city employees can use the pre-tax dollar benefit and could soon receive free monthly MBTA passes, which the city currently provides for public school employees, along with Bluebikes memberships. And in Brookline, town administrator Charles Carey said employees can use pre-tax dollars for public transit expenses and they receive discounted Bluebikes passes.
Employers have a big role to play in encouraging employees to ditch their cars.
A Spotlight Team survey of 21 major employers in the Greater Boston area in 2019 found that most offered commuter benefits that did not encourage transit over driving, with a few notable exceptions. In 2016, MIT began offering thousands of employees unlimited free subway and bus rides through a CharlieCard chip embedded in their MIT ID cards, along with other benefits for commuter rail users, the Globe reported. Just two years later, MIT saw a 12 percent drop in parking at its gated facilities.
Boston’s traffic congestion problem remains unchanged. A recent study from INRIX, a transportation analytics company, found the average Boston driver spent 134 hours stuck in traffic last year, making it the fourth worst in the world in terms of congestion-related delays.
Jim Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, applauded the city’s new initiatives and said they can be particularly effective in this case given city employees are required to live in Boston unless they have a residency waiver. But, he said, the MBTA’s service cuts and reliability problems are top of mind for employers as many are in the early months of requiring employees to return to commuting.
“No matter how you price it, it doesn’t help much if you can’t get to work on time or get home to pick up a child from day care on time,” he said. “Right now I don’t think there’s an outcry from employees for subsidized passes because they don’t view it as a viable alternative.”
Lawrence, Boston’s chief people officer, said the city is doing what it can to improve public transit and is sticking to its new benefits plan in the meantime.
“Our belief is that those things have to get better,” she said. “We’re going to continue to uphold those values and put the line in the sand.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the combined monthly maximum value of the city’s Bluebikes and T pass benefits.