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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Rochester launches incentive program for downtown commuters

Rochester launches incentive program for downtown commuters

City officials are deploying a new set of tools with the hopes of encouraging downtown commuters to consider alternative forms of transportation.

Working with Destination Medical Center, the city rolled out a new program this week called Arrive Rochester. The entity will operate as the city’s first-ever Transportation Management Association.

How it works

The concept — which is already being used in larger metros such as the Twin Cities — brings together public and private employers for the common goal of incentivizing greener commute choices and reducing traffic congestion.

For instance, employees of participating businesses will be eligible for incentives if they ride their bike or take the bus into work. There will also be an online trip planner and a ride-matching tool for carpoolers.

“If someone is saying, ‘I would like to carpool — I just don’t know anyone who lives where I live and works where I work.’ Well, now we have a tool that we can offer you,” said Adam Arnold, the city consultant who will oversee the program. “You can go online, put in those details, and you can find a database of people who might be able to match with you.”

Arnold, who works for the firm UrbanTrans North America, said the main goal of the program is to provide commuters with choices. And that often means removing barriers. One of the biggest hesitations he hears is from workers who fear being stuck without a vehicle if something unexpected happens, such as a child being sick at school. To counter that issue, the Arrive Rochester program will offer an emergency ride home program.

“The idea of an emergency ride home program is: the individual experiences that emergency, they take a cab ride home, keep that receipt, and then submit that to us and we reimburse the costs,” explained Arnold.

“It’s like any type of insurance,” he added. “You don’t use it all the time, but it’s there when you need it.”

Changing behavior

The Arrive Rochester program is part of a coordinated effort to rethink how people get downtown in the age of Destination Medical Center growth.

Right now, it is estimated that approximately 70 percent of commuters drive to work alone. By 2035, at the tail end of DMC, the goal is to slash that number by 30 percent (by a percentage, not a total number).

Reaching that target will require a shift in culture, said Nick Lemmer, communications and outreach coordinator for Rochester Parking and Transit, which manages about 5,000 parking spaces downtown.

By being proactive through initiatives like Arrive Rochester, Lemmer said the city can better prepare for the influx of activity being generated downtown.

“If gridlock happens, more people will think: ‘Well, I don’t want to drive downtown’ or ‘I don’t want to work in Rochester anymore.’ What we’re trying to do is avoid gridlock,” said Lemmer.

In the long-term, the plans could mean a more sustainable system of transportation for Rochester — one that is better for commuters, for visitors, and for the environment. But in the short-term, disrupting the status quo will be met with some resistance.

Case in point: the city’s recent decision to beef up its enforcement of time limits with on-street parking. On social media, several business owners criticized the updated ordinance, stating that the added enforcement will only deter more potential customers from coming downtown.

Lemmer, however, defended the policy.

“We think it’s going to benefit local businesses,” Lemmer said in an interview. “Instead of the spot outside [a business] being occupied for eight hours by an employee who works downtown, now that’s going to turn over more frequently so that four or five, maybe six, customers can occupy that spot during the course of a day.”

No ‘one big thing’

The introduction of a city-run Transportation Management Association follows approval of the city’s Integrated Transit Studies, which highlight the need for a more multi-modal approach to transportation in Rochester.

While autonomous cars may still be years off, the city is already embarking on efforts to improve the city’s transit system and make busy streets more bike-friendly. It is this kind of approach that DMC leaders have gravitated toward as a way of balancing current needs with expectations of the future.

“When we began, I felt the mobility solution would be to build one streetcar line between remote ramps, but as we have dissected the challenge, it’s clear there isn’t One Big Thing,” DMC Corporation Board Chair R.T. Rybak told us this summer. “Instead, we are looking at a family of transportation options from a variety of locations, and that may include everything from cars to streetcars to buses — some autonomous — to bikes and walking.”

Additional information on Arrive Rochester can be found here.

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Cover photo by Tom Roster

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