The Initiative to Reboot the Commute in the Charleston Area

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The average American sacrifices 11 days annually negotiating the daily transportation gauntlet to work and back. In the Charleston area, where the population has been growing at three times the national average for the last two decades, 40% of commuters now spend more than an hour of their day on the roads traveling to and from work.

Consensus among large area employers that rush hour traffic is both a productivity and quality of life issue has prompted 18 of them, with a combined local workforce of 39,000, to collaborate on a commitment to reduce congestion, particularly during peak hours.

Under an initiative spearheaded by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA) called Reboot the Commute, these prominent local employers have agreed to implement strategies that boost alternatives, including using public transportation, carpooling, flex scheduling and telecommuting.

Benefits of Rebooting the Commute Infographic from Charleston Regional Development Alliance
Courtesy of Charleston Regional Development Alliance

Measuring the Results
The CRDA has asked participants to implement at least one initiative each in 2019 designed to reduce the number of employees commuting by car during morning rush hour, says Karen Kuchenbacker, vice president of operations at CRDA. Moving forward the group hopes to determine how to measure their impact and perhaps even attract additional federal investment.

“Compressed summer work weeks, staggered start schedules and increased online classes for evening and graduate students are a few of the things The Citadel does that help reduce traffic during traditional drive times,” said Col. John Dorrian, Vice President for the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Citadel, one of the participating organizations.

A study of tri-county commuting patterns has found that every alternative but carpooling increased from 2005-2015. For John Runyon, director of business services for MUSC, simply getting up before sunrise and heading to work early has given him back an hour daily. “I personally commute from Summerville. I leave home at 6 a.m. because of traffic, and that takes 15-45 minutes off my commute,” he said.

Employer-based strategies to decrease commute time from Charleston Regional Development Alliance
Courtesy of Charleston Regional Development Alliance

A Multitude of Strategies
Kuchenbacker says CRDA recognizes that there is no “one size fits all” solution. After all, colleges must accommodate students, hospitals must have staff on hand for patients 24/7, and manufacturing plants tend not to be situated on urban bus lines. But participants agree that even small changes can create significant impact, especially if their commitment reverberates throughout the private sector.

As a result, a multitude of strategies are currently in play. Boeing employs staggered shifts to deflect travel to the plant away from rush hour. MUSC and College of Charleston offer their employees Park and Ride options. Many organizations say they have reduced the number of on-site conferences and meetings, in favor of conference calls and video conferencing.

LGC Plays a Role
For universities aiming at graduate students and working professionals, one useful strategy has involved the Lowcountry Graduate Center, conveniently located in the metro’s center of gravity off I-526 in North Charleston. For the thousands of people who commute between Summerville and Charleston, attending class at the Lowcountry Graduate Center can cut their travel in half. The impact is even greater for students attending courses offered at USC, Clemson and other schools outside the Charleston area.

For most employers, it is a matter of enlightened self-interest in a tight labor market. “If an organization employs a number of these tactics, it plays into what the workforce is looking for these days. Millennials are seeking flexibility and more work-life balance. Less time in the car allows employees to gain more time back home and be more engaged,” said Meredith Stith, Vice President of Human Resources at Roper St. Francis.

With nearly 10,000 more people moving to the Lowcountry annually, and infrastructure improvement plans projected to fall woefully short of accommodating the ballooning automobile traffic, the issue is almost sure to become more acute. These 18 organizations say they hope their commitment will demonstrate to all employers how small accommodations are easy to implement and can make a significant impact on traffic.