I fully realize that it wasn’t long ago that I waxed poetic about the wonders of commuting, but to be perfectly honest, I’m just not feeling it this month. Maybe it was the woman whose endless coughing punctuated Monday morning’s bus ride, idling in gridlock on I-90 for an hour and a half while the sun slipped away last week, or a combination of losing my iPhone (no games! no email!) and the residually chilly weather keeping me off my bike. Whatever it is, as much as I love cozy Capitol Hill, it would dramatically impact my quality of life to live a bit closer to where I work (though at 12 miles, my commute is slightly less than the 14.97 miles the average worker in Bellevue commutes). The fact that I can play mix and match with my commute does add a feeling of agency to the equation, but there’s still something unsettling about losing an average of 3 hours of your day to an activity that by no stretch of the imagination is fun.
A potential solution to, what I’m sure is, a fairly common predicament are initiatives like Washington DC’s new Live Near Your Work Program.
Much like Bellevue, where only 17% of downtown workers actually live within Bellevue city limits, Washington DC has long struggled with the image and partial reality of being a commuter city. A pilot partnership between the Washington DC’s Office of Planning and select employers throughout the city seeks to remedy just that, by handing out a total of $200,000 to people who are willing to move within two miles of their work, within a half mile of a Metro station, or within a quarter mile of a “high-quality” bus corridor. The Office of Planning explains the rationale behind the program, saying that that people who live closer to their work spend less money and time commuting, employers get the benefit of reduced parking costs and “better on time and work performance”, and the city gets spruced up urban neighborhoods and a wider tax base. And theoretically, the region will see less traffic congestion and air pollution as a result. The Office of Planning will match employer contributions (up to $6,000 per participating employee) to attract and retain DC residents, and partner employers will be selected via a competitive application process based upon their ability to administer the pilot program, offer homebuyer education, and provide matching grants for their employees. The pilot program has money for approximately 60 employees, and encourages home ownership in all areas of the city.
Critics have argued that the program is throwing free money at people who might have been planning to move somewhere else anyway, is not scalable, and that the money ought to be directed towards expanding metro rail and bus service.
But the Office of Planning responded by explaining that the LNYW program encourages employers to redirect the upwards of $10,000 they would spend to subsidize employee parking over a 5 year period towards a longer lasting investment for their employees. They are using this pilot model to develop best practices, and the program would only be continued and expanded if the study is able to measure the program’s benefits and resources are available.
Historical precedent for initiatives like this comes from Baltimore’s 14-year-old Live Near-Your-Work program, which provides grants to fully benefited employees of selected employers in search of homes in Baltimore. Its goal was to reduce sprawl, cut commutes and increase home ownership in designated areas slated for redevelopment. Initially, the state, city and employer (Hopkins is the largest among several) each contributed $1,000. Since its inception, the program has expanded dramatically and has helped approximately 300 people purchase homes in Baltimore, revitalizing downtrodden urban areas and improving quality of life in the process. The program currently partners with over 50 employers, working closely with John Hopkins to provide up to $18,000 to employees of the University.
While our Eastside darling Bellevue is certainly not in need of revitalization and continues to grow organically, there is still a significant overhang of vacant residential space downtown. One could expect that increasing density in the urban core would only add to the kinds of things people love about being in a city—street food, independent shops, art, and increased transit service—and would certainly make an impact on the regional congestion that just doesn’t seem to dissipate.
Do you think programs like these are a good use of money and are worth replicating? Or should city governments instead spend dollars on improving bus service, or make driving so unpleasant through taxing and tolling that people would never consider doing it? If you’re a commuter, what’s the tipping point that would cause to consider moving closer to where you work? Weigh in below!