Image by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious licensed under Creative Commons.

Last Tuesday, the DC Policy Center wrote that the “DC government does not need to favor those who walk or bike to work. And it should not favor those who drive either.” I agree.

Where we differ is that the Policy Center opposes the Transportation Benefits Equity Act,  a flexible commuter benefits bill that the Coalition for Smarter Growth supports. Some workers get free or discounted parking from their employers, and the bill would require those employers to let employees get a benefit of equivalent value if they choose to commute another way, like transit, bicycle, or foot. The DC Council is currently considering the bill.

Why flexible commuter benefits are a good idea

DC residents travel around the city by a variety of means. Some drive, some take the Metro or bus, and others walk or bike. Many commuters even combine multiple modes of transportation in a single trip, or change up their commutes on a day-to-day basis depending on factors such as weather, timing, or after-work obligations. 

Employers have a vested interest in helping their employees get to work, which is why many offer a commuter benefit to their workers. In many cases, however, these benefits are only for driving and parking; they usually don’t cover the range of options many workers prefer for their commutes. 

The purpose of the Transportation Benefits Equity Act is to create a sensible, more flexible approach that better reflects this diversity of commuting preferences. If an employer offers an employee free or discounted parking, the employee would be able to trade that for the same value in transit fare or taxable cash if they choose to walk or bike.

The article claims that flexible commuter benefits will worsen social divides in the city by creating a new benefit for the highest-earning workers at the expense of the lowest-earning. But its own data does not support this argument:

Image by DC Policy Center.

As the above chart shows, the lowest-earning workers are the most likely to commute by bus, and would thus gain from a commuting policy that equalizes benefits between bus commuters and drivers. Walkers also earn less than drivers, even adjusting for age differences. 

The DC Policy Center analysis also arbitrarily groups walkers with cyclists together and classifies such commuters as high-income, while it groups bus commuters with drivers and classifies them as low-income. But there is no clear reason to group such commuting modes together, and the data does not support a conclusion that the Transportation Benefits Equity Act would lead to “social injustice” in the city.

Which workers receive parking benefits varies by any given workplace; some firms offer parking only to their highest-paid employees, while others offer it to all employees or a particular subset of workers. Equalizing parking benefits across different modes of transportation does not necessarily redistribute income, but it does remove a distortion that encourages people to drive more than they would if other options were available. 

The Transportation Benefits Equity Act provides DC workers the flexibility they want to meet their commuting needs using resources that their employers have already allocated for this purpose. Employers will not be required to offer any new benefits or spend additional money; rather, they will simply have to ensure that any parking benefits they offer are in fact neutral commuter benefits that do not encourage driving at the expense of taking the Metro or bus, biking, or walking to work. 

It’s a policy that better meets the needs of residents across the city, while creating a less-congested, healthier, and fairer transportation system. Flexible commuter benefits are an idea all DC workers can get behind. 

Do you support flexible commuter benefits? Tell the DC Council in an email today!

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Patrick McAnaney is a Bethesda native who is currently a Policy Fellow at the Coalition for Smarter Growth and a graduate student studying economics and urban planning at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities. He lives in Dupont Circle.