Can ride sharing retain your distant workers?: Companies look to car- and van-pooling to counter high gas prices that may increase employee turnover

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Most concerned about higher commuting costs are employers on the periphery of Indianapolis, where there is little or no bus transportation for workers who live in Marion County.

“At some point, for an hourly worker, it becomes cost-prohibitive to drive to Plainfield for work,” said Kim Woodward, director of human resources for Brightpoint Inc. The wireless phone distributor has a warehouse in the Hendricks County town that employs 611, plus about 100 contract workers.

“Public transportation is not readily available,” added Woodward, who was just typing a memo to send with an employee survey that asks whether workers would be interested in car- or van-pooling. While she hasn’t documented cases of turnover due to rising gas prices, “I want to strike while the iron is hot.”

Alternatives to driving solo are being offered through Central Indiana Commuter Services, an organization partly funded by Indianapolis public transit company IndyGo. CICS now has dozens of employers on board who’ve agreed to share the ride-sharing gospel to workers.

One of the most recent was Conseco Inc., a Carmel insurer also off the beaten path for public transportation. Virtually all its 2,300 workers commute by car.

“The issue for us is that people pretty much have to drive to work here,” said Conseco spokesman Jim Rosensteele.

“We started to hear from employees about high gas prices. My sense is the program will get a real good shot here,” he added.

On the Plainfield prairie sprouting box after box of big warehouses, car- and vanpooling has potential to go well beyond Brightpoint, Woodward said. As more employers urge workers to sign up for pooling, it creates a larger database from which riders can be matched, she said.

“The number of people who could benefit from this program could grow exponentially,” she said.

That’s what Ruth Reiman, project manager of CICS, hopes to see.

“The key is the employers are looking at [pooling]. They see they’re going to have trouble keeping people at work. It’s already a challenge to get lower wage earners out to the suburbs.”

Commuters are concerned about gas prices, if Reiman’s database is any indication. On average, CICS has been adding about 216 new commuters a month to its 2,400-person database.

But it already had added 221 people in the period of Aug. 29 to Sept. 4, as gas prices shot up $1 to around $3.50 a gallon at some local stations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s damage to refineries and pipelines.

“The flood gates have opened,” Reiman added.

It’s not hard to see why. By car-pooling with two other women who live near her in the Southport area, Verna Blake figures she saves at least $20 a month in gas and another $75 in parking.

“Actually, I’m able to buy gas with it,” she said of the savings.

Earlier that day, at 6:15 a.m., she met fellow National City administrative assistant Terri Denton, and Cynthia Lee Bymaster, a manager at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, in the parking lot of a Southport retailer.

Blake and Bymaster were matched by the CICS database about a year ago. Later, they signed on Denton, who lives just down the street from Blake.

On a recent work morning, it was Bymaster’s turn to drive. The trio pulled onto Interstate 65 in a Rhode Island-size Buick, abuzz with discussions about restaurants they visited over the weekend-punctuated by Bymaster’s occasional comments about knucklehead motorists.

“I about hit a goose this morning,” Blake said, knowing Bymaster hates how the critters leave presents in her yard.

Riding with others turns out to be therapy.

“You can rant and rave about your boss, or the price of lunch downtown. I think we certainly brighten ourselves up in the morning,” Bymaster said.

Suddenly, Bymaster’s hands rise from the steering wheel as if she were holding binoculars. She’s incredulous at a driver ahead who sits at a green light, hesitant to turn left even though there’s no oncoming traffic. It looks like the same car that swerved in front of her earlier.

“They’ve been written up in national magazines,” she said of Hoosier drivers. “He’s got to sit there and stare at the green light.”

Blake and Denton appear amused.

“Just lately, she’s been getting crazy about those drivers,” Blake said.

Bymaster drops off her fellow carpoolers in front of National City’s plaza, downtown, then heads to a state parking garage. There, car-poolers are allowed to park in the basement of the garage rather than having to corkscrew up the ramps for several minutes in search of a space.

The car-pooling team said they’ve figured out how to deal with some of the disadvantages of car-pooling.

“You make all those excuses for not being able to car-pool, but they just don’t hold water,” Bymaster said. “If you have a doctor’s appointment, you can drive yourself that day.”

The car-pooling veterans also learned early on to make sure they were compatible. They met initially for coffee on a Saturday morning, she said, and discovered they were of a “different political persuasion, so we don’t talk about politics.”

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