Staff members at HGA Architects and Engineers were challenged last fall to change how they made commutes to their downtown Rochester offices for a week.

Offered incentives for bicycling or taking public transit, employees were asked to consider leaving their cars at home for the week.

It was a part of a pilot program connected to the emerging Transportation Management Association, which will seek to encourage more downtown employees to consider alternatives for commuting.

Hal Henderson, a principal at HGA, is also serving on the advisory board for the creation of the Transportation Management Association, and he acknowledged the weeklong experiment provided challenges.

“It was harder for a lot of us who need our car throughout the day,” he said. “I was probably the worst one.”

A similar weeklong pilot was implemented for Rochester city employees, which Nick Lemmer, marketing and outreach coordinator for Rochester Public Transit and Parking, said revealed a willingness to change community habits when possible.

“We discovered that overall there is a lot of interest and a lot of positive reaction to programs we started,” he said, noting those programs offered incentives for taking a bus, carpooling or biking to work, rather than driving alone in a vehicle.

When offered a small gift, such as a carwash or at-work perk, Lemmer said at least a quarter of city employees signed up to participate.

The TMA effort is hoping to see similar results as it rolls out ideas in the coming months.

The TMA board is expected to include city staff, as well as representatives from Mayo Clinic and smaller downtown businesses, as well as others affected by transportation concerns.

New commuting options

Created through one of the four ongoing transit studies connected to Destination Medical Center efforts, the TMA’s primary goal is to help encourage people to find new commuting options.

With plans to increase the downtown workforce by 35,000 or more employees while also boosting annual visits to by at least 4 million, DMC plans call for a substantial shift in transportation patterns.

While it doesn’t call for fewer personal vehicles driving to downtown on a daily basis, the plan does show a need to ensure a higher percentage of future commuters are willing and able to use public transit or other means to get to and from work.

The TMC’s mission is to suggest options, raise awareness for employers and employees, and find incentives for commuters to change their ways.

As defined in the DMC development plan, the overarching goal is to “create a thriving environment for business and community by building partnerships, delivering targeted transportation programs and fostering economic vitality.”

One way the city hopes to do that is through offering new software that will help facilitate ridesharing, as well as trip planning and tracking for employers who want to offer incentives for using public transit of other options.

DMC planners estimate that about 70 percent of commuters use their own vehicles to get to work, while 10 percent take public transit. DMC hopes to increase the percentage of transit usage to 30 percent as the downtown workforce grows. With that, the percentage of single-occupancy vehicles heading downtown daily would decrease to 43 percent, even if the overall number of vehicles climb.

Henderson said he expects the TMA’s work will emerge over time as transit opportunities change and parking pressures increase.

“I think it’s an ongoing process,” he said.

Lemmer agreed, but noted the initial goal will be to raise awareness of opportunities. He said programs like Mayo Clinic’s Guaranteed Ride Home program for late-night workers isn’t well-known by clinic staff, which means some employees likely drive to work when the don’t need to.

Other programs, in and out of Mayo Clinic, may also suffer from a lack of awareness, he said.

Clinic creates options

For the clinic’s part, it has long offered a variety of options to help reduce downtown parking issues.

Mayo offers a variety of transportation options for its Rochester staff, including subsidized commuter and city bus service, shuttles, carpooling options and support for bicyclists and motorcyclists, according to Stephanie Hurt, secretary for Mayo Clinic’s Parking and Campus Transportation Committee.

She indicated existing programs could continue, even as the city works to establish a transit circulator between Saint Marys Hospital and the main Mayo Clinic campus.

“Mayo Clinic continues to monitor reliable and efficient modes of transportation for staff to travel to and from Mayo Clinic locations,” she said. “Mayo has no plans to discontinue interclinic transportation options that are available to staff.”

Still, some say more could be done to help with the shift.

During the recent Bike Summit held by We Bike Rochester, local business owner Abe Sauer noted the location of bike racks likely deter some employees for commuting on two wheels, since they still must walk several blocks to the front door of the building where they work.

He suggested something as simple as installing ramps at more building entrances could increase bike use and reduce dependence on cars.

“If you put bike parking right in front of Mayo, you’d have more people parking there,” he said during a discussion of supporting bike culture in the city.

At the same time, several Rochester City Council members, as well as residents, remain skeptical about the practicality of expecting downtown employees to use bicycles during cold-weather months, especially when ice and snow covers the streets,

Lemmer said the potential challenges and opportunities will be part of the task being undertaken by the TMA.

“This will be an organization that will provide people more opportunities for people to learn more about biking to work, walking to work or taking the bus. It will be a resource,” he said. “It may also coordinate services that already exist.”

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