MIT Administration "Walking the Talk"
on Transit Commuter Benefits
The announcement by Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz that beginning September 1, MIT employees received free use of transit as a benefit provided by MIT, is a very positive and very significant example of “thinking globally and acting locally.”
About a decade ago, then-President Susan Hockfield held a day-long symposium at Kresge on the energy problem of the planet and announced that MIT would not only do excellent research, but would also “walk the talk” and lead in its own practice. In the new MIT-subsidized free transit benefit action, President Rafael Reif and Israel Ruiz have demonstrated that this was not just a throwaway line in a speech, but a real commitment to lead by example. By changing the incentive structure of the commuting benefits it provides to its employees, MIT is setting an example of how major employers can incentivize a more sustainable public transit-oriented commuting pattern and finance the expanded employee benefits through savings realized by not building the increasingly expensive garage parking spaces required to support auto commuting. This is the largest and most ambitious employer-led initiative in the region to help employees shift their commuting towards lower impact transit. As an MIT research associate who has often been critical of MIT policy in the Kendall Square area, as well as of MIT’s failure to provide much more graduate student housing at prices that are affordable, I am delighted to be able to say that this time the administration has really stepped up to the plate.
The process through which the administration adopted this policy is also unique, and remarkable. Inspired by the aforementioned speech of President Susan Hockfield, a young Masters degree student named Ursula Hester in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning decided to do her thesis research on the hypothesis that MIT could afford to improve the incentive to use public transportation for employees commuting to MIT, by broadening employee benefits to provide free use of public transit to all employees, while financing the subsidies through savings from not building new parking garages. (Ursula Hester’s thesis: “A transit pass in everyone’s hand?” implementing Universal Employee Transit Pass programs as a strategy to increase transit ridership, 2004.) Ursula’s thesis showed that the working hypothesis is compelling.
The following year another Masters degree candidate (Tegin Teich Bennet, now the City of Cambridge Transit Planner) requested that John Attanucci, a research associate in the Transit Lab in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), organize a faculty and student seminar on how to implement the Ursula Hester thesis concept. In addition to academic participants, Larry Brutti, Operations Manager of the MIT Parking and Transportation Office, participated directly with the students, and provided the institutional perspective of the MIT commuter benefit program. CEE Professor Nigel Wilson, leader of the Transit Lab, also provided his long-term perspective on the MIT commuting benefits program. Professor Wilson had served as a faculty representative on the administration Transportation and Parking Advisory Committee for years, and had successfully advocated for “levelling the playing field” between auto and transit commuter choices, by gradually increasing the price of employee parking to closer to market rate, and by initiating a program of MIT subsidies for the MBTA monthly transit pass, so that MIT employees could have similar pre-tax employer provided subsidy available for transit commuting as for parking, while providing more environmentally friendly options for commuting.
The students participating in the seminar identified the opportunity provided by the MBTA introduction of the “smart” CharlieCard to insert a CharlieCard chip in the MIT employees’ MIT ID cards, to make using public transit customer friendly, and to provide free occasional use of public transit, encouraging more public transit use.
With both a CharlieCard chip and an MIT parking chip in the ID, it became a “mobility pass.” One participant in the seminar (David Block-Schachter, now the Chief Research Scientist at the MBTA) did his Masters thesis on improving understanding of the commuting behavior of MIT employees, based on the employee survey which MIT conducts every two years pursuant to the U.S. Clean Air Act regulation. The analysis showed significant variance from day to day within the commuting pattern of many individual employees. But the employee benefit program then in place did not reflect this variability, and actually encouraged an employee to either always drive, or always use transit, once the employee had chosen either a monthly parking or a monthly transit pass. This led to the hypothesis that if all employees had a daily choice of parking for a daily charge or using public transit “for free,” many more employees would choose public transit, reducing the demand for added parking, and reducing auto congestion and air pollution in the area.
But the MBTA monthly employee pass price structure then in place required MIT to pay the monthly price for each employee, even those who used the T infrequently. If the MBTA would be willing to use the information now available with the CharlieCard to identify actual use, and charge MIT for the actual use, then MIT could afford to provide free transit to all employees, and finance the costs through regularly increasing parking fees and savings from avoiding further expensive construction of parking garages.
MIT is not primarily in the transportation business, and prioritizes employee satisfaction. So intensive focus groups were then conducted with all MIT employees invited to participate. These focus groups reinforced the conclusion from the survey analysis that employees would respond favorably to more options, particularly if the incentives were positive (“carrots” not “sticks”). Experiments were organized with the MBTA’s cooperation to test the actual behavior of about 1,000 employees with the CharlieCard chip embedded in their identity cards.
Another Master of Science in Transportation thesis, conducted by Dianne Kamfonik, identifies the positive revenue consequence for MBTA resulting from employer subsidies of transit pass programs. This information helped to design a “win-win-win” program where the MBTA, MIT employees, and MIT will all gain from a new employee transit pass structure. More recently, a thesis by Matthew Hartnett, uses the availability of fine grained data available from the CharlieCard and commuter surveys over a period of 10 years to analyze the outcomes of the pilot program, which further verified the incentive to shift mode to transit provided by the “mobility pass”. Matthew even identifies what appears to be a slight reduction in automobile ownership by employees, providing environmental benefits from reduction of auto dependency generally.
All of this intensive interaction and pilot testing with the MBTA has enjoyed the strong support of the MBTA, and most recently, Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack. The research was funded through the “Cambridge Living Laboratory” program sponsored by the University Transportation Center transit research program and a Federal Highway Administration grant overseen by John Attanucci of the MIT CEE Transit Lab. But some of the early insights about the potential role of employers in shaping commuter preferences goes back to the insights of MIT Professors Alan Altshuler and Daniel Roos in the 1970s. The potential to replicate and expand on this expertise with other major employers will continue to be examined by John Attanucci and Professor Jinhua Zhao of DUSP as an example of mutual nudging of behavior requiring collaboration by the MBTA, major employers, and their employees.
In conclusion, this is a really large and significant contribution by President Rafael Reif and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz. It places MIT in the forefront of progressive employers taking direct action to improve the environment, and reduces negative externalities associated with driving, while securing the Institute’s core responsibilities as a university. The responsibility now shifts to the faculty and staff, to “think globally and act locally.” First, by taking advantage of the new incentive structure provided by the Institute to shift our travel patterns to drive less and use public transit more. This case should also inspire all of us to become active and engaged in Institute policy matters, and stick to it, as Professor Nigel Wilson and John Attanucci have in this case. With sound technical analysis and persistence, it is possible to move Institute policy towards socio-economic and environmental sustainability.