Driving commuters toward sustainable options

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

When organizations like MIT transitioned to remote work and learning last year in the interest of health and safety, one impact of this change was immediately visible to many people – a large decrease in commuters on roads and public transportation. The change spurred theories of the potential positive impact on emissions, but also created many questions about the future of commuting and commuting benefits programs like those offered at MIT. With concerns over safety and large numbers of employees working remotely, public transportation use dwindled while the delicate balance of permits to parking spots on a dense urban campus like MIT didn’t demand the same level of focus as pre-pandemic.

But now, more than a year after remote work became the norm for many, MIT is preparing for employees and a full cohort of students to return to campus in the fall. This transition back has come with many challenging questions, one being: How do you manage the commuting choices of thousands of staff to support safety and sustainability while strategically managing limited on-campus parking? For MIT, part of the answer is data.

Earlier this year, the Office of Sustainability (MITOS) launched “Commuting at the Institute: The Story of Access MIT,” a new data dashboard in the Sustainability DataPool that shares aggregate data on employee commuting choices with data stretching back to 2016 – helping Institute leaders identify patterns and best practices for balancing commuting needs of employees with Institute resources and safety as MIT transitions back to a densely populated campus.

Access MIT launched in 2016 with the goal of reducing parking demand on campus by 10 percent over two years. The program itself was designed based on years of collaborative research and testing by the MIT Committee for Transportation and Parking, Transit Lab, Parking and Transportation Office, MITOS, and other partners to determine if commuter behavior could be influenced by incentives like cost-free public transportation – data showed that the answer was “yes.” Access MIT’s pre-pandemic design included cost-free local subway and bus and a flexible pay-per-day parking fee structure (among other benefits) to encourage all benefits-eligible MIT employees to choose sustainable, low-carbon commutes. Between 2016 and 2019, Access MIT drove a nearly 15 percent reduction in on-campus parking in gated lots and increased public transportation adoption by employees.

The original intent of the data collection and sharing was to understand employee behaviors to continue to adjust the program to support low-carbon commutes; the dashboard displays overall use trends including which days have higher use rates for public transportation or parking. But as the pandemic upended daily life at MIT, the data began to tell a story of that impact.

One impact was a substantial increase in the number of parking account requests that the Office of Transportation and Parking fielded – suggesting a projected increase of single-occupancy vehicle trips. In response, the office worked to further incentivize safe and sustainable commuting options with expanded subsidies for Bluebike membership, commuter rail passes, MBTA parking, and more, in addition to the free local bus and subway already offered through the Access MIT program, in an effort to return to the pre-pandemic trends illustrated on the transportation dashboard.

“An unexpected outcome of this data collection and sharing is that we now have data to inform the return to campus,” explains Director of Sustainability Julie Newman, noting that campus growth like the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is also expected to impact parking demand and require strategic decision-making. “We now have the ability to look at the data to understand how much parking we do or do not need, or to explore additional opportunities for congestion mitigation strategies.”

This type of responsive planning is the result of the changes demanded by the pandemic and now key to a successful return to campus and the future of work at MIT. In a recent MIT News article, Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins explained, “[T]he pandemic created a forced experiment in MIT’s operations. We learned what our current technology systems and policies can flexibly support, and where improvements could be rapidly applied to support our academic, research, and administrative functions.”

The dynamic use and socializing of the data behind Access MIT is an example of the living lab culture on campus, where campus programs can be used to inform sustainability policies, research, and decision-making. For example, MITOS is also partnered with the Media Lab’s City Science research group, who are using the data to inform their research around the future of work.

“Looking forward as we plan for a return in the fall, the transportation data dashboard can be used to look back at our pre-pandemic commuting behavior, inform future planning, and track our return to campus and administrative functions,” says Newman. “It’s really an invaluable tool.”

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