by Lenny Pierce, Research Analyst
While Massachusetts has welcomed the recent surge of job creation along Route 128, there is a meaningful downside to this activity that is already being felt by anybody who commutes to and from the region–traffic congestion. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC)’s 2011 “Route 128 Central Corridor Plan” estimated that over the next 20 years, population within the corridor will increase by 13,500 and that employment will grow by over 8,600 jobs, generating between 100,000 and 200,000 daily auto trips in the region. The existing congestion, along with forecasts of exacerbation such as those by MAPC, have spurred some groups, such as Biogen Idec and Boston Scientific, to start running their own private shuttles to and from their suburban offices. Fortunately, for many Route 128 commuters whose employers do not provide their own personalized shuttle, there is the 128 Business Council, an independent shuttle service partnered with either specific businesses or business parks to connect major commercial centers to residential areas for a small fee ($3-5 each way for non-members depending on the shuttle, about half of as much for members), often incorporating existing public transit hubs in the process. We caught up with Monica G. Tibbits-Nutt, Executive Director of 128 Business Council, to discuss what she feels sets the organization apart in the world of suburban commuting.
What advantages does a service like yours have over a public service like the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority (RTA) bus system, or the commuter rail for that matter?
Because we are a private organization we have the ability to quickly adapt our services to meet the ever-changing needs of businesses in our service area. RTAs and the commuter rail are public entities that must deal with bureaucracy anytime they wish to adapt their routes or schedules. 128 Business Council regularly alters our schedules and routes to add new members or better serve existing members.
We also have the ability to keep our costs low because we can bid our services out to a wide range of vendors. Additionally, we can customize our vehicles to meet the demands of our members and passengers. If a member company came to us and asked for leather seats and flat screen TVs on their shuttle we could quickly deliver those amenities as long as the company was willing to cover the additional expense.
128 Business Council also offers WiFi and GPS tracking as standard amenities on all our shuttles. These amenities set us apart from the MBTA and allow our passengers to be productive while aboard the shuttle.
A handful of your lines run to business parks in suburban Boston (Hobbs Brook, Reservoir Place, Bay Colony). Do you have an idea of what percentage of your ridership gets dropped off at business parks vs stand alone buildings such as 35 Gatehouse Drive in Waltham?
All of our shuttles serve suburban office parks as well as corporate members. On the Waltham Center and Needham Shuttles ridership is 50% corporate and 50% developer. On the REV Bus (Hartwell Area Shuttle), shuttle ridership is 100% developer. On the Alewife Shuttle ridership is 60% developer and 40% corporate.
128 Business Council services people commuting both from the suburbs to the city (Example: Windsor Village>Alewife Shuttle) and from the city to the suburbs (Example: Alewife>Wyman Street). Are you seeing a shift in demand for one direction over the other?
The demand has always been from the city to the suburbs (the “reverse commute”.) We make our shuttles more effective, fill seats and reduce costs by serving riders going from the suburbs to the city on what would otherwise be “deadhead” runs. (No passengers on the return trip from Waltham to Alewife in the morning for example).
Who are some of your competitors in this space?
Our primary competitors are privately held transportation companies that offer private commuter shuttles to individual businesses. We do not face any competition from other organizations trying to copy our business model of bringing together multiple businesses to share the cost of operating shuttles to serve multiple buildings.
What makes our organization stand out from transportation companies is that as a Transportation Management Organization we offer our members much more than just shuttle service. 128 Business Council offers a full menu of Transportation Demand Management programs ranging from emergency ride home and carpool matching programs, to commuter surveys, to on-site commuter outreach events. We have staff that regularly visits our member companies to promote the commuter programs we offer and provide assistance to commuters interested in finding new ways of commuting to work.
Do you think that shuttle service like yours has helped make suburban tenants more competitive in attracting the millennial talent that wants to live in the city and doesn’t want to drive to work?
Yes, absolutely. The demographics of our shuttle riders bear this out. From a recent survey of our riders we know that they are primarily under 30 and live in Boston (particularly Allston/Brighton), Somerville, and Cambridge. 30% have a master’s degree and 90% have at least a bachelor’s degree. 70% rent their house/apartment and 40% do not own a car. For this 40% who do not own a car, our shuttle is their only realistic way of getting to many of these suburban employment locations. This is a talent pool that could certainly find employment in the city, but choose to work for a suburban employer. The convenience of the shuttle allows them to get to their suburban workplace without having to drive. Our survey data shows that overwhelmingly our riders would rather take a shuttle then drive alone through traffic.
According to Tibbits-Nutt, commuters took 180,000 trips (a trip is one ride) on 128 Business Council’s 9 shuttles in 2014 and they estimate that about 700 people use the shuttles. That is 700 people who would likely be driving to work alone if not for the service. “We have seen a shift in how employers view our shuttles” says Tibbits-Nutt. “For many years our shuttles were viewed as a commuting alternative that employees could use to get to the suburbs. We now have companies viewing these shuttles first as a recruiting tool to market their company and second as a means of transportation.” With employers able to use shuttles like 128 Business Council as a recruiting tool, job creation along 128 could surge even further, and without a corresponding surge in traffic issues.
Monica G. Tibbits-Nutt, AICP, LEED AP BD+C is the Executive Director of the 128 Business Council. Working in regional planning and transportation, Monica’s areas of specialty are transportation planning, urban design, and sustainability. Her work experience includes public sector transit planning at both the MBTA Advisory Board and as Executive Director of TransitWorks. In addition, Monica has worked in regional planning and development for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), the City of Columbus Planning and Development office, and the Greater Linden Development Corporation. She received a Masters of City and Regional Planning from the Ohio State University in Columbus and a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and Sociology from the University of Southern Indiana.
An active member of the research community, Monica has been a featured speaker at Next Stop: A National Summit on the Future of Transit, the New England Sociological Association Conference, the Association for Commuter Transportation International Conference, and the Research, Innovation, Scholarship, and Creativity Symposium. In both her work and research, she is most interested in developing regional strategies that integrate sustainable practices into transportation. Toward this goal, Monica’s current work seeks to improve and promote sustainable transportation practices throughout the suburban and metropolitan region.
She is a gubernatorial appointee to the Board of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) serving on the Executive Committee and Legislative Committee. She is also the Vice-Chair of the Regional Transportation Advisory Council (RTAC). She is an active member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and a LEED Accredited Professional in Building Design & Construction with the U.S. Green Building Council.