San Rafael tries to draw workers away from solo commuting

A new commuter program from the City of San Rafael aims to draw municipal workers away from driving alone to work. Though it needs work to encourage active commute options, namely bicycling and walking, it will do wonders to promote transit and vanpool commutes. The pilot program, designed by city officials with help from city analyst Rebecca Woodbury, puts a monetary incentive behind commuting by vanpool, carpool, and transit:

Vanpools and carpools:

  • After two months of carpooling, participants will receive a one-time stipend of $50 and be eligible for quarterly raffles.
  • Those who lease a van for a vanpool get $600 in help on top of TAM's $3,600 vanpool subsidy. After six months participation, vanpoolers get a one-time stipend of $200.
  • Prime parking spaces for carpools and vanpools.


  • Public transit riders get a $20 “try it” transit voucher. A free Clipper card with $20 pre-loaded or a one month SCT pass might be a better way to encourage use.


  • Use up to $240 per month in your pre-tax paycheck dollars for vanpool and public transit. It's unclear if the $75 state transit benefit is included in the package.
  • For each trip made using an alternative mode of transportation, get a raffle entry. This includes bicycling and walking.

Drivers also get a $100 subsidy towards the purchase of an electric vehicle. You can read more about all the programs on San Rafael's website.

At first glance, there's a fair amount of emphasis on encouraging these modes without a lot of emphasis on subsidizing them after the fact. This makes some sense, as people tend to stick with the transportation mode they're used to rather than switch to another one. After six months of vanpooling, I suspect the routine will be established well enough that it just won't occur to people to switch.

The focus on start-up costs could be applied to biking as well. I'll bet a number of employees live within biking distance, but their bikes sit gathering dust and rust in the garage. There are also safety issues, like bicycle lights, that might not be available to the casual daylight biker. The city could offer to pay for the cost of a bike tune-up and lights or sponsor bike clinics at City Hall and Courthouse Square. Though not part of the formal program as it should be, this kind of bicycle benefit might end up as part of Bike to Work Day events, so bikes won't be entirely sidelined.

Walkers are harder to subsidize, as shoes don't typically wear out so quickly. However, a one-time financial reward or a $50  gift card to a local shoe shop could be enough to get some people out on the sidewalks.

Given how intransigent San Rafael can be when it comes to biking and walking issues, especially through downtown, getting staff on their feet and in bicycle seats could subtly shift the overall stance of the city.

Woodbury told me that they have a limited budget for this pilot program, and money could shift if people don't embrace a particular mode. Biking, she said, might end up as one of the beneficiaries if the interest is there.

So far, unfortunately, interest in general has been fairly slow. Two weeks in, Woodbury is the only one to use the transit benefit, for example. She told me the group who devised the plan will be meeting soon to discuss marketing and outreach, so it may be a few months before things start to really roll.

Programs like this one helps move people towards the diversity of transportation options available to them. It benefits the health of employees, boosts transit ridership, and helps the environment all at once. Here's hoping the city as employer will lead the city as government to do a better job promoting its position as the relatively transit-rich center of the county that it is.