Transport policies on ‘go-slow’?

Are government and travel operators doing enough to support flexible working when it comes to the cost of commuting? Heather Greig-Smith investigates.

8586176667_a1e92f6802_oOne of the legacies of the London 2012 Olympic Games is that the number of people working from home one day a week has risen. Although it has dropped off its Games peak of 26%, the figure is higher than it was before the event – 20% from a previous 13%, according to Transport for London (TfL) research. Forcing businesses and individuals to think about how they could work differently has clearly had an impact.

Working from home does not have to be an all or nothing concept. For many employers, allowing some work to be done remotely is an easy way of granting workers the flexibility they desire and having a positive impact on productivity. That can be achieved without losing office contact and traditional management control. It doesn’t even need to be all day – simply allowing workers to avoid peak commuting can make a difference.

Avoiding peak travel

Transport plans for the Games encouraged workers to alter their commuting times to avoid peak congestion where possible. TfL says the most popular change made was to allow different start or finish times, introduced by a quarter of affected businesses. However, most (84 per cent) businesses did not intend to sustain any changes made to working patterns, typically because it was not considered necessary. Just two in ten of the businesses that introduced initiatives to encourage staff to change their travel patterns maintained those changes after the Games.

Yet the benefits of this approach are not limited to one-off events and could be considered by employers as part of their menu of flexible working options. Swiss research shows that these patterns do not have to be bad for business. The Work Anywhere study, sponsored by telecoms business Swisscom and rail operator SBB, was published in July and involved 264 of their workers in a two-month trial. Their challenge was to avoid travelling at peak hours where possible and the impact on employees’ lives and the businesses was measured.

Many of the workers would start work at home in the morning and then travel to the office after rush hour for meetings. They did the same number of hours a week, raising the percentage done at home or in transit from 24% to 33%. Of those taking part, 41% said they felt their quality and quantity of work was higher, with 55% claiming there was no difference. Managers backed this up, saying work performance was the same or better.

The participants reported increased satisfaction from the flexibility, while team spirit and the reachability of team members remained good. When workers did travel at peak times, it was generally for meetings or teamwork that required them to be present at particular times. At the end of the trial 70% of the participants said the advantages of the scheme outweighed the disadvantages.

One says: “I only catch the train at 9am. I have more space, a better internet connection and I might even be able to make phone calls because it doesn’t bother anyone. It’s the same in the evening.”

2394279602_66c0652f7d_oChanging travel patterns

A UK Department for Transport (DfT) spokesman says there are no equivalent studies for the UK. However, he says the department is “looking at ways to reduce or remove the need to travel for business purposes, through the use of IT, remote working or travelling outside of peak hours”.

He added: “We work with businesses to encourage them to support sustainable travel and to promote smarter travel choices, such as car clubs and car sharing schemes. Where travel is unavoidable, we want cost effective and environmentally friendly transport to be people’s first choice. We continue to work with business and the public in trying out new ways of working and travelling. For example, we support the business-led Anywhere Working initiative, which aims to increase remote working.”

But could government and travel companies be doing more to support businesses and commuters who work flexibly? With the industry predicting in 2011 that passenger numbers would double by 2035, everyone traveling to work at peak times is unsustainable.

Complicated costs

Yet, once a commuter starts cutting down on travel, the benefits of a season ticket fall and the price paid per day of travel rises. Some commuter routes offer carnet tickets – books of single journeys which offer 10% off travel. This helps balance some of the expense but not all.

Mixing and matching these options can be complicated and flexible workers still lose out. For example, a monthly season ticket holder travelling from St Albans to central London in July would pay £12.96 a working day (based on a £298 ticket spread over 23 working days), whereas someone working three days a week in the office and travelling on carnet tickets would pay £16.80 a day for the privilege.

Even when you adjust for the fact that a season ticket holder doesn’t save travel money on holiday days, the flexible worker still pays extra for travel. If the 3 day a week worker managed to do one journey off-peak every day, the cost would still be more: £13.50 a day. Only if the flexible worker manages to do both journeys off-peak, does it become cheaper.

Time warp travel

Corin Taylor, senior economic adviser at the Institute of Directors, says rail companies are stuck in a time warp when it comes to working patterns. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Operators must look at major reforms to bring their service into line with modern living and working practices,” he says.

“It is absurd that there is no option for an off-peak season ticket, when so many [employers] support flexible working among their staff. Many of these employers would be quite happy for staff to arrive at work after 10am, which would dramatically reduce the cost of a season ticket. Outdated concepts of 9-5 working are holding ticket prices in a time warp, and flexible lives should be reflected in flexible ticket structures.”

Taylor adds: “They should offer off-peak season tickets and if you have to make a journey at peak times you pay a small top up. If it was on a smartcard like an Oyster card there wouldn’t be a problem taking payment.”

Sara Robinson is managing director of Cake Communications, which has offices in Cardiff and London. She says her team make an effort to travel off-peak for business and she is open to staff members doing the same with their commutes. “I’m completely open to people coming in later and finishing later or doing the same thing starting earlier as long as the core office hours are covered,” she says. “The caveat is that we are a small team so can be flexible and agile and control when our meetings take place. If you are a bigger firm it becomes more difficult.”

2906613624_21e726ac00_oPolitical issue

Conservative London Assembly member Roger Evans agrees more can be done. He says: “London needs a ticketing policy fit for the 21st century. TfL, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and the DfT should work together to introduce travelcards which ensure that there are real savings to be made by commuters who consistently work from home for some of their working week.”

Evans points to comments made by ATOC chief executive Michael Roberts in November 2012, when he said there should be a 3-day per week travelcard available within 2 years. “Whilst we applaud this commitment, it is crucial that Transport for London accepts the logic of this approach and works to ensure delivery,” he adds. “An alternative way to achieve the same benefits would be for commuters to pay for their season ticket and then receive a rebate for every day that they choose not to travel.”

A spokesman for ATOC points to examples of smart card development such as Southern Railway’s ‘the key’. He says “The industry is already exploring ways that smart ticketing could be introduced to reduce journey times, offer more flexible fares and drive down industry costs. Rail is more popular now than at any time since the 1920s and Oyster-style cards, self-print tickets and mobile phone technology will make rail travel easier and help attract more passengers.”

Given this, and the fact that London mayor Boris Johnson has asked TfL to look at a part-time travelcard option, it seems likely travel change is on the way. In future, workers and businesses who choose not to conform to the standard 9-5, five day week that ticketing is based around, may not lose out on season ticket benefits. However, change appears to be piecemeal and slow. Transport needs to accelerate to keep up with the pace of business.

Image credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fulinhyu/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/guerrillapop/

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