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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : COMMUTING : Companies Are Under the Gun to Lighten Commuter Crunch

May 22, 1990|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under the iron-gray skies of morning, Chuck Denman listens to the steady swoosh-swoosh of his plastic skate wheels spinning against the blacktop.

While his co-workers wallow in freeway traffic, Denman strides through a back route in Seal Beach, where he spies an occasional fox darting through the undergrowth or hawk gliding above the fields.

"I find driving to work is pretty boring," said Denman, 42, a strategic planning and marketing analyst who either runs, bikes or skates to work most days. "You are encased in a box on four wheels."

The nine-mile route from his home in Long Beach to his office at McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co. in Huntington Beach generally takes him a little more than an hour to skate.

At first, Denman said his human-powered commuting habit made him the butt of a few good-natured gibes. But he has become something of a company role model because county companies are under pressure to encourage employees to share rides, take van pools or buses or arrive under their own power to lessen smog and traffic congestion. For every Denman an employer can muster, one fewer car spews pollutants as it comes through the front gate in the morning.

All companies with more than 100 workers at a single job site are required to survey employees' commuting habits and submit a plan to the South Coast Air Quality Management District to increase the number of riders per vehicle--or get cars off the road altogether. Companies that fail to submit or update a plan face fines up to $25,000.

While the El Monte-based smog czars rule with a stick, companies trying to entice employees out of their personal cars have been handing out carrots.

Most large county companies offer incentives to ride-sharing employees. Some companies offer preferential parking or awarding them in monthly drawings with such items as an earthquake survival kit or a weekend getaway. Others are forming bicycle clubs, paying car-poolers $1 or more a day or handing out extra vacation days.

Some employers are doing away with driving to work entirely. They are allowing selected employees to "telecommute" by working at home on personal computers and staying in touch by phone.

These changes in commuting habits are mandated by the AQMD's ominous-sounding Regulation XV--the measure that requires employers to encourage a cutback in single-car commuting by their workers. It was enacted in 1988, when the district estimated that each car carried the equivalent of 1.1 people.

County employers are required to try to meet a goal of 1.5 employees per car. Just how much the measure has reduced traffic since it went into effect has not been determined, district spokesman Bill Kelly said.

"Employers by and large have voluntarily complied with this, because they see it as a benefit and something they can do to ease congestion and clean up the air," Kelly said.

Those that have failed to submit plans have paid the price. Twenty-five employers--ranging from a card casino to an airline--have paid fines totaling $314,500 through last month.

Faced with the heady task of trying to break deeply ingrained employee habits, some county companies seek help from private consultants or the Orange County Transit District's commuter network.

The network pairs a company's employees with neighbors for car-pooling. Also, through its Quick Start Program, the district loans vans to employers for up to three months for pooling experiments, district spokeswoman Mona Ziada said. About 450 companies have used the programs since their inception in 1985.

Consultant Marilyn Olson, who left the district after a decade as a ride-sharing specialist to start her own business, said she has been showing employers how to put their plans into action.

Olson, who is assisting Bechman Instruments Inc. of Fullerton with implementation of its plan, said she formed a "commuter club" for car-pooling employees. They receive an embossed coffee mug to start and are eligible to receive $1 for every day they participate.

Direct subsidies to employees result in "dramatic increases" in car-pool activity, said Olson, who operates her business under the name Commute Options of Anaheim. While the greatest growth has been in car-pooling, she said, she is "absolutely amazed at the number of people registered for walking and biking."

Paying employees for every day they car-pool has proven more effective in building a program than monthly giveaways, she said.

But some companies say the giveaways are popular. McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach, where Denman works, holds drawings for weekend trips to San Diego and other places via Amtrak. The company has more than a dozen van pools and a bicycle club with 60 members.

Denman said he started his self-propelled commute to add more hours to his day.

"I decided if I can arrange the logistics of getting my (business) suits to work, I could combine my commuting needs with my exercise goals," he said.

He said he drives once or twice a week to drop off a few clean suits at work.

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