As Boise emerged from its post-holiday slumber, downtown commuters began 2017 pretty much the same way they ended 2016: with a steady stream of rush-hour traffic. Just as routine as the traffic jam that fills Front Street and Capitol Boulevard each morning, the No. 1 Valley Regional Transit bus pulls into the newly opened Main Street Station, a block away from the congestion on Front and Capitol.
"I live in southeast Boise and take the bus to work every day," said John Bernardo, who steps off the No. 1 bus at 7:40 each weekday morning. "From the time I walk five minutes to the bus stop from my house until I get to Main Street Station, my total commute is 20 to 25 minutes. If I drove my car downtown and used street parking, maybe I'd save five minutes depending on traffic. But you're not really saving much time; plus, I'm checking email or relaxing while I'm on the bus."
For those who insist on squeezing their single-passenger vehicles into an arduous daily commute, the idea of biking or busing to the office may seem foreign. That said, a growing number of Boise-based companies are incentivizing employees to find an alternative.
"It's actually an economic driver to encourage employees to take alternative forms of transportation," said Bernardo, who works as sustainability strategist at Idaho Power, headquartered in downtown Boise. "Many people feel strongly that it is the right thing to do. But for the average person, the way to convince them to consider an alternative is to keep some money in their pocket."
According to the Ada County Highway District, more than 80 percent of the estimated 200,000 Treasure Valley commuters drive—by themselves—to work each day.
"We do provide incentives to our employees," said Bernardo. "That begins with us encouraging the use of Valley Ride bus system; plus we had them put up a bus shelter at our operations center. Additionally, we have bicycle racks, repair stations, carpool parking spaces, and we've begun to promote electric vehicles. We have charging stations and have purchased electric cars for employee use."
Also vying for active forms of transportation in Boise is the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance. Robyn Hayes, the outreach and development director for the organization, said every employee at the alliance uses "active transportation" to get to work.
"I live about eight miles away from downtown," says Hayes. "Usually I bike along the Greenbelt or drive toward downtown, but park about a mile away and walk to work. I leave about 15 to 20 minutes earlier, depending on how fast I feel like I want to walk, and then I get some exercise."
For those who don't own a car, accessing public transportation is the norm.
"We actually stopped using the expression 'alternative transportation' a while ago," said Cynthia Gibson, executive director of the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance. "We call it 'active transportation' because there are a lot of people who don't have a car, so they don't have alternative forms of transportation. They have to ride the bus, their bike or walk."
St. Luke's Regional Medical Center, meanwhile, has a department dedicated to its Employee Transportation Alternatives program.
"The ETA program emphasizes ways to get to work other than single occupancy vehicles," said St. Luke's Wellness Coordinator Eric Selekof. "It saves people money, and if you use one of the active alternatives—biking or walking—you can burn calories. We are also looking at the community aspect. If we can lessen the impact employees have on the inversion in town, we would love to help with that."
St. Luke's employees directly benefit financially from participating in the ETA program—those who take the bus to work may be eligible for a free bus pass and, if employees carpool to work, the hospital offers discounted employee parking passes. St. Luke's also hands out gift cards for bike tune-ups or walking shoes.
Bernardo thinks if Boise is truly going to move the needle on alternative transportation, Valley Regional Transit will be the key factor to get people in and out of downtown.
"I think the future of transportation in Boise is going to be continuous shuttles," he said. "People can park on the outskirts of town and know that every five to seven minutes there is going to be a shuttle that can take them to the other side of town. But because I work for Idaho Power and I care about air quality, I hope it's an electrically-run shuttle."
When it comes to improved bike lanes or walking paths, Gibson points to the unique—some say bizarre—separation of powers on road management.
"The city of Boise has a great vision of how they see the future of active transportation but Boise doesn't manage its own roads—the Ada County Highway District does," she said. "So we needed to turn to them to create what we're calling a 'pedestrian advisory committee' so that every road project in Ada County begins by considering the most vulnerable road user."