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Do The Shuttle

With the high price of gas and the hype around energy independence this election season, many of you might wonder where you can find immediate relief from the cost of your commute.

Is public transportation the answer? Maybe. But a lot of Massachusetts businesses are looking beyond the MBTA, for other ways to get their employees to work. WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti reports on one solution along Route 128.

TEXT OF STORY:

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: So, if you're trapped in the morning commute right now, Caroline Connor is about to state the obvious:

CAROLINE CONNOR: Getting to work is a lot of work.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, and tell me something I don't know, you're thinking. How about this? Connor, executive director of the 128 Business Council, says, if your commute takes you anywhere along Route 128 from Woburn to Needham, you're part of one of the largest daily motorized migrations in the state.

CONNOR: Oh, it's around 250,000.

CHAKRABARTI: And for those quarter of a million employees, Connor says, it's hard. Hard on the wallet. Hard on the sanity. Hard on workplace productivity. So hard, in fact, that a recent Business Week study found that of surveyed workers who make the daily trek from the city to the suburban office parks, almost half said they'd take a new job for a better commute.

So, many workers are turning to what could be called a private form of public transportation — a shuttle service run by the 128 Business Council, a non-profit transportation management association, and the first in the nation. Massachusetts has eight others. And though the council has run the shuttle for almost 20 years, this year, ridership is nearing an all-time high. It's up almost 15 percent.

[SOUND OF SHUTTLE BUS PULLING UP]

CHAKRABARTI: It's morning, at Alewife Station, the end of the Red Line. Several dozen 20- and 30-something workers wait at a corner, listening to iPods, thumbing through the Metro, tapping on Blackberries.

Up pulls one of the shuttle buses. It'll make 21 different stops at business parks in the 128 area. Rides cost $4.75, but most companies heavily subsidize the fare, which is why Justin Clay says he took a job at Lexington-based VistaPrint.

JUSTIN CLAY: Because, I don't intend on getting a car any time soon. A big reason VistaPrint was a fit was because the shuttle was here.

CHAKRABARTI: Clay lives in Somerville. His colleague, Bhargav Bhat, lives in Cambridge, and says he can't imagine taking a job that would force him to move to the suburbs.

BHARGAV BHAT: Yeah, I'm definitely happier I can live in Cambridge.

CHAKRABARTI: When you were interviewing for the job, when they made the offer, did they say there's this shuttle service that will help you get there, is it something they were marketing to you?

BHAT: For me they did. They sent out this little package saying this is what we have, this is how you can get there.

[BUS SOUND FADES AWAY]

SARAH DUBOIS: During the interviewing process, we let people know about the program so it's very important to stress that so they can make Astra Zeneca their choice employer.

CHAKRABARTI: Sarah Dubois is the transportation coordinator for Astra Zeneca's Waltham campus. The pharmaceutical company is the largest participant in the 128 business council shuttle program. Astra Zeneca moved from Cambridge to Waltham eight years ago, and immediately became a business council member. Though annual fees range from $10,000 to $15,000, Dubois says access to the shuttles is worth the cost.

DUBOIS: It helps us retain employees, it helps with recruiting, our employees are always looking for ways to get to work, and it's a good alternative especially for people who live in the city, so then don't have to buy a car or don't have to use their car.

CHAKRABARTI: Or rely entirely on the MBTA, says 128 Business Council Executive Director Caroline Connor. The T gets employees to subway and commuter stops, but not close to the vast corporate campuses that girdle 128; businesses, Connor says, that couldn't survive without access to the huge labor pool that lives well beyond the highway.

CONNOR: Oh absolutely! It makes a huge difference. I know there's a couple of really big companies that moved into the Winter street area and they only did that because they know they can get there.

CHAKRABARTI: Connor says every week she's contacted by 2 to 3 companies seeking to make a major move to the area, but not if they can't access the shuttle service. With a deeply indebted MBTA unable to make major service expansions, the 128 business council expects to add more buses and more routes in coming years. The service is already at capacity; 100,000 workers are expected to ride this year. Most of them are 20- and 30-something urbanites with an average income of $85,000. But, Connor admits the shuttle is not a perfect solution. With service limited to mornings and evenings, it's almost impossible for working parents to use.

For WBUR, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

This program aired on September 9, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.

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