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Commute.org and Sustainability

By Joanna Falla, Climate Corps/AmeriCorps Fellow 

Commute.org works to make trips for Bay Area commuters more sustainable, and there are many ways to interpret that in the transportation sector. For something to be sustainable, it must be “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Some commuters can sustain their drive-alone commutes by paying for gas and upkeep to their personal vehicle, but this option is not financially sustainable for many families in the Bay Area, let alone environmentally. Creating new environmentally friendly transportation could be effective, but only if it is created with input from the commuters. Commute.org defines a sustainable commute as one that “decreases congestion, improves the environment, and enhances quality of life,” and these ideas can better encapsulate what sustainability means for Bay Area commuters.   

Community sustainability 

Commute.org helps employers with commuter benefits, but more importantly, it helps to provide safe, accessible transportation for commuters and the surrounding area. To make sustainable transportation accessible for everyone, community input must always be considered. If a new shuttle route is to be created, extensive preliminary research is done to find the best routes for the community and surrounding businesses. For existing routes, Commute.org makes sure that they are as effective as possible for both employees and community residents. 

Another way Commute.org works with San Mateo County commuters is through its Board of Directors. The board members are city councilmembers from San Mateo County that have taken a special interest in transportation, and they hold regularly scheduled meetings that are open to the public to figure out how Commute.org can best benefit the county. Most cities in San Mateo County have already become a member of the board, but Commute.org works to provide services to the commuters, residents, and employers throughout the county, regardless of if a city is a member.  

Commute.org is further strengthening its commitment to improving transportation equity by collaborating with community partners to ensure that the available resources are reaching the right people. An Equity Task Force made up of members from our Board of Directors and an in-office Equity Subcommittee have been created to facilitate more conversations around transportation justice in San Mateo County. Other Commute.org programs such as Guaranteed Ride Home and Try Transit were created to further incentivize commuters to trust and learn about the benefits of public transportation for both the individual and the community. Sustainable transportation means nothing without the support and insight from the people, so Commute.org prioritizes a strong connection between itself and Bay Area commuters.  

Financial sustainability 

Commute.org is a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) funded by larger government organizations such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the City/County Associations of Government (C/CAG), and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA). The remaining ~40% of funding comes from private sector sponsors supporting Commute.org shuttles. Overall, Commute.org receives funding from over 50 different private and public organizations, and this is done to diversify revenue to better absorb any unforeseen changes to the funding providers. 

As well as the Board of Directors, there are also Supervisory and Financial Committees that hold public meetings and help Commute.org push out effective resources for sustainable transportation. The Supervisory Committee is made up of representatives from a variety of cities, towns, and partners in San Mateo County. The Finance Committee includes members from both the Board of Directors and the Supervisory Committee, and they provide financial oversight and guidance to the agency on all financial matters, such as making sure that money is being spent effectively and ensuring that there is enough money for current and future long-term projects. 

A recurring problem with transportation in the Bay Area is the need for consistent funding. Debates on fare prices plague transit companies and increasing fares can disincentivize commuters who need access to transit the most. Transportation groups in the Bay Area have a tough time balancing their checkbooks with the needs of commuters, which further highlights the need for first mile/last mile services like micromobility amenities and Commute.org shuttles. 

Environmental Sustainability 

Finally, the most common association with sustainability – environmental impact. While driving alone has an obvious negative impact, most modes of transportation will have some environmental drawbacks as well. Taking the train is effective, but it is a large machine running all day and it takes a lot of gas and equipment to operate. Carpooling is a great idea, but its impact depends on how efficient the carpool group and route are. Micromobility forms of transit such as biking and scootering are the most environmentally friendly, but the least accessible mode for most commuters without the help of other forms of transportation. Ultimately, any commute that does not involve driving alone will have a positive effect on the environment, the community, and on Bay Area traffic. 

The main purpose of Commute.org is to lower Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). The key to lowering VMT is to use fewer cars to get the same number of commuters to their destination. This is a major objective for any sustainable transportation agency because it allows commuters to explore different versions of a more sustainable commute while lowering traffic congestion and improving air quality. Commute.org is funded by both transportation and air quality groups, so minimizing traffic congestion is a very important objective. In 2021 alone, 771.1 million tons of CO2 have been reduced due to the sustainable commutes of over ten thousand commuters. 2.17 million alternative miles were logged. The most used form of transportation by far was telework, both in terms of trips logged and miles traveled, and the effects of telework on air pollution, traffic congestion, and work/life balance have inspired many employers to continue using telework.   

Keeping track of these data accurately is very important for creating future transportation resources to better reflect Commute.org’s commitment to sustainability. Future projects for Commute.org’s STAR platform include facilitating the ability to input several different modes of transportation (i.e., for commuters who bike to the train station) and adding an option for electric cars, buses, and trains to help commuters log their sustainable trips more accurately. 

Besides working with municipal groups and private funders, Commute.org also works with different environmental organizations and transit agencies to help all commuters get to their destination. We work very closely with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, Spare the Air, SamTrans, Caltrain, and other important agencies to make sure that Commute.org provides seamless and sustainable transportation information to all. 

Conclusion 

Commute.org is one of the oldest transportation agencies in the Bay Area, but that does not mean that the agency is done growing. A good work/life balance has become increasingly important for Bay Area commuters, and Commute.org is dedicated to improving its service for commuters that need it the most.    

Commute.org’s vision is to create “a region where all residents and employees have access to equitable, sustainable, affordable, and safe transportation options and use them as their primary modes when commuting on the Peninsula.” What was once a goal to limit VMT has now grown into something much larger and impactful for Bay Area commuters, and Commute.org will continue to grow benefits commuters, traffic, the community, and the environment.

For any questions or comments regarding this article, please e-mail Joanna Falla at falla@chapman.edu.

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