If the policy tide is turning against the car, then businesses and other employers will have to face up to the challenge of getting more of their staff to work by other means.
Transport policy review
In June, the Government announced a wide-ranging review of the road building programme which, as well as reassessing investment plans, will consider steps to manage demand for road travel and ways of encouraging alternative modes of transport. The Government will shortly consult on policy options - including taxes on private non-residential parking and road pricing - leading to a transport White Paper next spring.
Ministers have promised to attach "high priority" to the role of employers in managing traffic demand. "Employers who help fight pollution and congestion and improve staff health with green company plans and better fleet management of company cars are leading the way in changing attitudes to car use," Transport Minister Gavin Strang said at the recent launch of a report on green commuter plans by Transport 2000.1Commuting accounts for almost a quarter of car use in the UK, and over 70% of all journeys to work are made by car. Despite the growth in corporate environmental awareness, most employers have yet to address the contribution of commuting to their overall environmental impact. In a recent survey of large employers in Nottingham, the University of Westminster found that 40% had or were developing environmental policies, but only 6% had plans to review staff travel requirements.
Nevertheless, following a number of successful initiatives in the Netherlands and the USA, the idea of green commuter plans now appears to be catching on in the UK. The Confederation of British Industry, which recently published a guide to transport best practice, reports an "amazing" level of interest in the issue among its members.
Among the companies involved, Vauxhall will soon set a target to reduce car journeys by 4,000 staff at its Luton car plant. In May, it held a car-free day for office workers at its headquarters. And in a commuter planning initiative organised by Transport 2000 and London First, seven companies - including Hewlett-Packard, NatWest and the Royal Mail - recently implemented their own plans.
The essential ingredients of a commuter plan, after obtaining high-level management commitment, are:
Commuter policies can include controls on free parking spaces, new facilities for cyclists, and collaboration with bus firms and neighbouring employers to develop transport services which match people's needs. Several large employers have also reported successful initiatives on car sharing, using a database to match up drivers with similar travel requirements.
So far, however, most of the organisations that are developing commuter plans have been driven to do so because they simply cannot accommodate forecast increases in vehicle numbers. In some cases, parking space is not available or would be too costly. In addition, Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) Note 13, issued by the Department of the Environment in 1994, encouraged local authorities to restrict provision of parking spaces, and many are becoming increasingly reluctant to consent developments that will bring significant traffic burdens.
When employers count the full costs of car use, it is often possible to justify a substantial budget for developing and implementing a commuter plan, including subsidised bus services. If the organisation is large enough, a staff travel coordinator can be appointed to keep up the momentum.
Company car parks cost surprisingly large sums to build and maintain and take up valuable land. But a commuter plan can also bring less tangible benefits such as improved staff well-being. Traffic congestion causes stress and wastes people's time, whereas alternatives such as walking to the bus stop or cycling can help them escape from sedentary lifestyles. "Employers have reported improved morale and reduced absenteeism," says Carey Newson of Transport 2000.
Sprucing up bus travel
Staff will be able to wait for their bus in comfort, under plans for a club-class commuter lounge being developed by Digital Equipment's headquarters in Reading. The computer firm, which is also discussing a range of new bus services with operators, hopes that 100 more staff - double the present number - will be persuaded to commute by bus.
Digital's efforts result from the imminent loss of hundreds of parking spaces - ironically because the land faces compulsory purchase for a new road. It has decided that replacing all the spaces would be so expensive that it makes more sense to fund alternatives. In addition, it hopes that reducing commuting by car will alleviate congestion at a nearby motorway junction which frequently causes severe delays to staff and customers.
The site, which employs 1,850 people and will soon expand to 2,100, will end up with 287 fewer parking spaces than at present. "If people don't find alternative modes of transport we will have a parking problem - and that's deliberate," says Ashley Dabson, Digital's UK Property Manager.
"We decided that rather than replacing all the parking spaces we should look at alternative modes of transport," he says. As well as initiatives to encourage bus travel, Digital is installing cyclists' facilities such as showers and cycle storage rooms, and is talking to neighbouring businesses about developing an Internet-accessed car-sharing database. But, unlike some other employers, Digital is not planning to charge for parking space. "Providing alternatives is the key, not coercing people," says Mr Dabson.
Thames Water has also established a commuter plan for its offices in Swindon. The site employs 1,000 but has only 350 parking spaces, and has a severe parking problem.
"We thought that either we needed to rent more parking space or extend our bus services," says Chris Betteridge, Thames Water Policy Advisor. It turned out that the costs of improving the bus service - £275 per passenger annually - were only a little over half the cost of renting parking space.
Following a survey which asked staff why they didn't use the free bus service, improvements were made such as allowing people to hail the service anywhere in the journey, and modifying the route to suit more people. Use of the service has doubled to around 140 staff, and Thames is also permitting staff from nearby firms to use it for £10 a month.
As part of the commuter plan, the company introduced a taxi service for staff who do not drive into work. They can use a taxi to get home if they have to work late or collect their children unexpectedly.
Hospitals often have particularly serious parking problems, and have led the way in developing commuter planning in the UK. At Southampton University Hospital, staff living within a mile or a 30-minute bus ride are no longer allowed to use the hospital car parks. Other commuters - except those sharing - have to pay £48 per year to park. More than 70 of the 4,758 employees have joined a car sharing scheme, and almost 8% now cycle. Car park queuing times have been cut from up to 50 to less than 15 minutes.
Commuters who hand in their parking permits can receive £75 towards cycling equipment or a free one-month bus pass. The hospital has also linked its sites by free bus and taxi services, removing another incentive to drive to work.
Derriford Hospital in Plymouth also introduced parking charges in April, but following consultation with unions management agreed to cut the proposed charge from £1 to just 20 pence per day. The hospital has 4,000 staff and is being extended this year. The target of its commuter plan - developed using focus groups - is to move 500 people away from parking.
Income from parking charges at Derriford is to be ring-fenced and spent on travel initiatives, including a 30% discount on bus passes. However, the lower than planned parking charges mean that the money available has been considerably reduced.
One of the largest sites to launch a commuter plan in the UK is Boots' Beeston complex in Nottingham, which has 6,000 staff. The company has pioneered the use of software to match car sharers with similar needs. Around 500 people have registered and, as well as travelling times and destinations, they are able to specify the smoking habits and sex of their preferred sharer. Up to 200 are now regularly sharing, the firm says. The software was developed in the Hertfordshire County Council "Travelwise" initiative and is commercially available.
Boots has set targets to reduce car use by 10% over three years and a further 10% in the following five years. It is also aiming to increase cycling by 50%, and to "arrest and reverse" the decline in bus use. Following discussions with bus operators, some services now terminate at the site. Boots had to revise security rules which prevented public vehicles coming on-site.
The catalyst for Boots' commuter plan was a planned expansion that will bring 1,200 additional staff on site in 1999. Gordon Davies, Head of Facilities Management, explains that the capital costs of new parking spaces - £750 each - gave great incentives to reduce car use. Although the company is extending on-site parking by 750 spaces, this is 100 fewer than originally planned, representing a capital saving of £75,000.
Spreading the message
Boots is also a key partner in an initiative by Nottingham's city and county councils to promote commuter planning among employers in the Nottingham area. Since the launch in 1995, several big employers have begun developing commuter plans, including both local authorities - although the city council's work was held up by an 18-month delay in gaining budget approval - the two hospitals and two universities. The next challenge is to bring in smaller employers, to which end the city council is holding seminars for local businesses and is involved in an EC project on green commuter plans.
Hertfordshire County Council is also working on a project to encourage employers to develop commuter plans, in a joint initiative with Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce. The scheme, Business Travelwise, is an off-shoot of its successful Travelwise campaign which seeks to shift local transport patterns using a range of policies from publicity to planning.
"The idea is to talk to businesses and help them to prepare commuter plans and relieve congestion," says Barbara Kelly, who works for the Chamber of Commerce and coordinates Business Travelwise. "Sometimes the alternative is for the company to move out of the county altogether, which is not in the interests of local business."
So far 13 companies have joined the scheme, including Rank Xerox, Kodak, Du Pont and smaller firms ranging from a builder to an insurance broker. By working together, firms have greater clout when negotiating with bus operators to improve routes or offer discounted bus passes. Ms Kelly is also writing to 150 small businesses on an industrial estate to propose a joint commuter planning exercise, including a car sharing database.
The Government is looking at ways of stimulating further interest in commuter planning, and a tax on private non-residential (PNR) parking is widely advocated by transport specialists. The Department of Transport recently commissioned research on how companies might react to such a tax, and Westminster University's Transport Studies Group is working on an official study to quantify the amount of PNR parking in a sample of firms in the East Midlands. It will also assess how important PNR parking is to employers.
The idea of parking charges was discussed in the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's 1994 report on transport. The RCEP noted that charges are likely to be unpopular with those who see their privileges diminished, and suggested that "they might be phased in gradually as alternative means of access are improved." The revenue raised, the report added, could be used to improve public transport.
The Labour Party presented similar policies in its transport strategy, launched last year. The strategy advocated flexibility for local authorities to use the proceeds from "parking and other transport charges" to improve local transport systems. And it said: "It is important that any changes to taxation and charging by local authorities are introduced gradually to avoid penalising particular groups."
Labour picked up another point identified by the RCEP - the danger of council policies simply encouraging businesses to shift out of town and to other areas with less strict rules. "Local authorities will be encouraged to collaborate at the regional level in the design of [charging] schemes," it said. The new Regional Development Agencies may help to coordinate policies on charges and planning.
The Local Government Association has drafted a report recommending that parking charges should be introduced using the business rate mechanism. As a first step, it proposes that rateable values should state the number of parking spaces and their values. Thus employers would see a separate charge for PNR parking on their rates bill. As a next step, the business rate for PNR parking could be increased, with the extra funds directed to council projects.
However, legislation will soon be needed for the proposal to be implemented as part of the next revaluation of business rates in 2000. An alternative to parking taxes is congestion charging which would apply to traffic entering city centres in peak hours. Congestion charging was favoured by 84% of firms in a recent survey by the London Chamber of Commerce - as long as the revenue was used to improve public transport.
Further fiscal measures, favoured by Transport 2000, include changing the income tax rules on transport perks. Subsidised bus passes, for example, are fully taxable, whereas employees are not taxed on the cost of their parking space - nor on the full cost of company cars and free fuel. However, an attempt in the 1980s to tax employees on parking perks was abandoned because it proved unenforceable. And one difficulty with introducing new income tax concessions is that the Treasury would lose tax revenue, for example, from commuters whose employers already subsidise their travel. By contrast, taxes on parking or congestion would bring new resources for councils.
Current interest in green commuter planning is concentrated among employers with serious parking or congestion problems at specific sites. The attraction of taxing parking space is that it is one of the few policy measures that would encourage all employers to consider the impact of their commuting patterns.
1 Changing journeys to work, Transport 2000, Walkden House, 10 Melton Street, London NW1 2EJ, £30.00.