Ron Lewis – STAFF
Call it critical mass. Personally, I like what the economists call it, the “elasticity conversion point.”
It’s the point at which people’s inelastic demand starts to stretch. Demand for something like, say, gasoline, is basically fixed, or inelastic, because we, as American commuters, cannot envision our world without our cars close at hand. So gasoline and things like housing and bread will always be immunized against the rules of supply and demand.
Just as I watch for the day when people will stop buying houses for $700,000, I also have my eyes peeled for the day when commuters decide to alter their gasoline consumption. It’s kind of like we’re the camel, and the extra dimes we spend on a gallon of gas are the straws on our back.
While I don’t put much stock in one news story as absolute proof of a larger trend (I should know), I see them as signs or crop circles. One or two might just mean someone is trying to plant an idea in our heads, but hundreds of them at the same time means its time to put on the tin foil.
Exhibit A is an AP story published in our newspapers about employer transit help like Commuter Check. It says that employers are putting more money into them, and employees are scooping up that money in droves.
What I found most interesting, however, was this sentence from the story:
With gas prices still more than $3 a gallon in some parts of the country, nearly 40 percent of commuters are turning to mass transit or carpooling, according to a survey from the federally funded Best Workplaces for Commuters.
Forty percent? That’s pretty amazing. What’s not clear from the story is the percentage we started at.
For that, I looked at the Best Workplaces website, which is sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation. The program lists 1,500 employers that participate in the “voluntary business-government program that distinguishes and provides national recognition to employers offering outstanding commuter benefits such as free or low cost bus passes, strong telecommuting programs, carpooling matching and vanpool subsidies.
As far as the 40 percent figure was concerned, I could only find the statistic that there were 40 percent more employees covered by qualifying commuter benefits. The total number covered was a bout 3 million as of February.
The site says, however, that 1.8 million did take advantage of the transit subsidy, such as Commuter Check, and 653,000 cashed in on a vanpool subsidy. Lesser used programs included telecommuting and payments for not using parking.
The great thing about the site is that it lists employers — and there are a lot in the Bay Area — that have attained the “Best Workplace” designation.
For example, 11 employers in Oakland, including Kaiser Permanente-Northern California and Ben C. Gerwick Inc., a consulting, employment and business service. Several are to be expected, like Alameda County’s Congestion Management Agency and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (duh!).
So maybe we haven’t snapped out of our gasoline fixation — yet. But at least we can suggest to our employers what an honor it would be to get on that list, and maybe help tip the scales a bit.