January 5th, 2024
Reducing single occupant vehicle (SOV) commutes and ensuring residents without access to reliable transportation have access to jobs is a difficult task in a region largely designed around the personal car. Through the Smart Columbus Acceleration Partner Program, employers in the region are challenged to provide education and incentives to employees to help provide smart mobility solutions.
White Castle is a family-owned business that has been operating for almost 100 years, with nearly 400 restaurants in 13 states, as well as a thriving retail division that sells frozen sandwiches through the grocery channel. White Castle is headquartered in Columbus. The company has always been community- and employee-focused, with a history of corporate responsibility and excellent employee benefits. Before joining the Smart Columbus Acceleration Partner program, White Castle did not offer commuter-oriented benefits in the Columbus region. In fact, very few large employers offered mobility benefits before Smart Columbus. After issuing a survey to employees in corporate offices and area restaurants called Castles, White Castle found that 90 percent of employees drive to work alone each day.
“The baseline data from the survey was great because it helped shape what programs we put into place,” says Shannon Tolliver, social responsibility and environmental sustainability manager for White Castle. Tolliver also serves as Smart Columbus mobility ambassador for White Castle, working with Smart Columbus to achieve Acceleration Partner goals which include reducing employee SOV commutes in central Ohio by 10 percent by the end of 2020.
Employees provided a variety of reasons for solo commuting, including a belief that no transit options are available, they need a personal vehicle for errands, and/or a personal car is preferred. Survey findings also discovered team members would try an alternative form of transportation if:
- they gained productive work/personal time,
- there were financial incentives,
- and/or if there was an easy way to find car or vanpool partners.
Lastly, 41 percent of team members would use a matching tool for convenient carpool/vanpool services with colleagues.
White Castle applied for grant dollars from Smart Columbus’ matching grant program called the Ignite Action Fund, to pilot a transit program that would incentivize more employees to ride the bus or carpool to work. The Ignite Action Fund is a tool available to Acceleration Partners to accelerate the timeline for launching new mobility benefits by reducing a barrier-cost. The long-term goal is to help employers create mobility benefits for employees that can last far beyond the grant program.
Mobility Benefits Design
After strategically analyzing employee survey results, White Castle created GoCastle, its data-driven, people-centered commuter benefits program.
The program is two-fold:
- GoCastle offers participants a subsidized monthly Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) bus pass, which amounted to team members paying 20 percent, or $17, for the pass, and White Castle paying the remaining 80 percent, or $68. Bus passes provided unlimited COTA rides for the month— which can be used to get to work, but also to the grocery store or weekend activities. The COTA pass program equates to a $68 raise per month per participating employee, not to mention reduced spend on personal vehicle expenses. Smart Columbus’ Ignite Action Fund reimbursed the cost of half of each bus pass provided to employees for the six-month pilot.
- GoCastle also promotes a free app, Gohio, which offers team members a way to track their non-SOV trips and match with colleagues within their own White Castle subnetwork for carpooling. This service is offered for free to employers in the region thanks to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC). GoCastle focused on building awareness for this tool and provided no additional incentives for use of this service.
All 640 part-time and full-time employees in the region were eligible to participate. Tolliver says it was important to offer mobility benefits to both full-time and part-time employees to ensure all needs were met.
“We wanted to offer those two different benefits because they target different people who would be willing to try different modes,” Tolliver says. “We have always been a family-owned business where we put our team members first and we have a lot of benefits. Getting buy-in from White Castle leadership was not hard, especially with the grant, knowing that it was going to cover half of the costs. With mobility benefits being something different that we haven't done before, I think they were also curious about the results of a pilot and discovering the impact.”
The pilot kicked off in October 2018 and lasted until March 2019. A high-level timeline for pilot design and execution included:
- June 2018: Employee survey was conducted and program designed
- July 2018: Smart Columbus awarded Ignite Action funding to White Castle
- August 2018: Final details of the program were designed
- September 2018: Pre-promotion including a mix of print, digital and verbal communications were used to increase awareness about the program among employees at regional restaurants and the home office based in Columbus.
- October 2018: White Castle hosted a free lunch and learn for interested team members to learn about the Gohio platform
- October 2018- March 2019: Ongoing communication, including emails and posted materials in Castles
- February 2019: Hosted another Gohio and COTA information table
- April 2019: Pilot concluded and COTA pass program participants were surveyed.
- May 2019: Benefits continued while leadership program gauged impact and next steps.
Pilot Learnings & Results
White Castle had 40 employees participate in the COTA bus pass program. During the six-month pilot period, COTA bus ridership among participants increased 28 percent and the amount of people who drove alone decreased by 39 percent.
“The COTA benefits seem like they were for our team members who wanted to try COTA because an incentive, or because they were already using COTA,” Tolliver says. The survey found that other modes of transportation also decreased, which Tolliver says could be due to the bus pass being a more reliable form of transportation for those who used other methods.
“When we launched this pilot, it was about to transition into winter. So, some of the drop off could’ve been those who would have been walking and biking throughout the winter without that COTA bus pass,” Tolliver says.
“The benefits are also with helping with recruiting and retention, especially to some of the restaurants that don't have a lot of parking. It's helped with making sure team members have a reliable way to work. I think making sure it was open to all team members was important,” Tolliver says.
- Subsidizing bus passes for a diverse workforce
“Since White Castle is a restaurant company, it made sense to offer COTA bus passes, because we have so many different locations and those are the team members that may need assistance with transportation,” Tolliver says.
- Use data to design marketing program
Tolliver says that White Castle is considering getting more data from employees on how close they live to bus stops and restaurants. This would enable direct marketing to those who are most likely to use the program
- Give employees a way to participate
Having employees pay for 20 percent of the bus pass allowed for White Castles to evaluate the true mobility needs of their employees. “I liked that we had a percent of the bus pass that team members had to pay so that they had some skin in the game,” Tolliver says.
Next steps include additional promotions of the GoCastle program to White Castle employees and integration of GoCastle into new employee onboarding. White Castle is continuing to fund the bus pass program for at least another six months to learn from team members how the program helps with retention and attraction for team members.
White Castle also plans to continue promotions of the Gohio platform and intends to increase marketing and to develop incentives to increase membership and continual usage. Promotions of the Gohio platform will target White Castle Home Office employees due to their low participation in the COTA pass program. Benefit programs like GoCastle provide ladders of opportunity that start with mobility and help ensure the Columbus region remains a thriving place to live and work.
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