This story is from the 2016 Top Places to Work issue. You’ll find the full list of winners on BostonGlobe.com on Thursday evening.
WHEN HARMONIX MUSIC SYSTEMS moved from Central Square in Cambridge to Boston’s Financial District last year, “transportation had a whole new meaning,” says the video game maker’s human resources director, Janet Freed.
Gone was the free parking. Gone was the subway stop directly in front of the building. No longer could many employees easily walk or bike to work or drive as cheaply. “I was worried that people wouldn’t want to make the commute,” Freed recalls, “so we had to figure out a way to make coming to this new space in downtown Boston attractive.”
Harmonix did so by giving its employees commuting benefits for the first time in its 20-year history, including fully paid CharlieCards, subsidized commuter rail passes (a $130 monthly stipend), subsidized parking ($200 a month), and free bicycle storage. “One of our biggest tasks was getting folks comfortably to work and not making this a burden for them,” Freed says. “And people were psyched that we gave them the tools to do that and we were paying for it.”
The difficulty of getting anywhere in Boston is a common lament, and statistics reflect why: The metro area has the country’s sixth most time-consuming commute, according to recently released Census data, and the state’s highways rank among the nation’s 10 most congested, with rush-hour speeds sometimes as slow as 10 miles per hour. And that gridlock isn’t expected to ease. Greater Boston’s population is projected to grow by more than 10 percent between 2010 and 2030, putting increased strain on our already congested roads and rails.
To address that transportation challenge, many companies are increasingly offering a wide array of commuting benefits to entice and retain workers. Consider: About 275 Boston-area companies partner with Hubway to give employees free or discounted rentals with the bike-share program. More than 1,400 companies participate in the MBTA’s Corporate Pass Program, which automatically loads value onto employee passes every month.
And, like Harmonix, local employers such as Alnylam, Addgene, and Everquote give their workers free CharlieCards, sometimes in addition to free or discounted parking. MIT went a high-tech step further: This summer, the school began giving all its employees free MBTA bus and subway access through a chip embedded in their university ID cards. “We’re trying to get people out of their cars,” says Michael Owu, chair of MIT’s Transportation and Parking Committee, “but not by forcing them — by giving them better and more interesting choices.”
These kinds of extras “become essential in areas like the Innovation District, Kendall Square, and less densely populated suburban markets, where you have a desperate desire to get people out of their cars,” says Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency for Greater Boston. Discouraging employees from driving to work is especially critical in downtown Boston, where there is little space for more cars. “I don’t care what we do to the Northern Avenue Bridge; it’s still going to be a mess in the Innovation District,” he says.
Other local employers offer their workers a monthly subsidy to be spent on whatever commuting expenses they choose. Among them: Zerto ($100), Ironwood Pharmaceuticals ($150), CarGurus ($200), and Vertex ($300). Ironwood, in Cambridge, lets employees use their stipend not just for rail passes but to pay for a bike or even sneakers, says spokeswoman Trista Morrison. Bicycle storage is becoming an in-demand amenity, too. Kayak, the travel website with technical operations in Cambridge, offers bike storage. “You pull up, you park your bike, and I’m able to go right up the elevator and into the office,” says Stephen Mueller, a Kayak engineering manager who bikes to work daily from his Back Bay home. Kayak also offers its employees private locker rooms, showers — even a washer and dryer.
All these incentives appear to be having an impact: In about the last decade, the number of commuters in Greater Boston who bike to their jobs has increased 25 percent, the number who commute by foot has risen 11 percent, and there has been a 7 percent increase in people taking public transit. Over the same period, the number of people who drive to work has stayed roughly the same, according to Census data.
“Car is still the dominant mode,” says Manisha Bewtra, an analytical services manager at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, “but across every measure, there has been an increase in alternative modes of transportation.”