Houston's commuter experiment

BOB MOON: What do you want? And who's going to give it to you. Another installment of The Real Agenda today. Our look at the November elections. What you should be hearing about but aren't. Infrastructure's not a word candidates will be using much this fall. Fixing roads and bridges is thankless work for members of Congress. Plenty of blame to go along with all the pork. So local politicians are left to clean up the mess.

In Houston, Mayor Bill White's determined to get his city moving again. From the Marketplace Work and Family Desk, Hillary Wicai reports.


RADIO ANNOUNCER:"Trouble on the north side. We have an accident blocking the left lane on the north loop. It's eastbound at TC Jester, that has you jacked up towards I-10."

HILLARY WICAI: Another day, another traffic jam jacking up Houston. Houston traffic ranks fifth worst in the country but its bad enough to rank as the number on problem in Marilyn Gonzalez's life.

MARILYN GONZALEZ: "Definitely number one. Because it's a lot of wasted time. I can't do anything else while I'm driving. I'm just sitting here idle and it's frustrating."

It usually takes Gonzalez more than an hour to crawl into work every day — time she'd rather spend with family. Except on a recent Friday morning she was flying along at 60 mph. Morning rush hour was over but Gonalez was just going to the office. She's one of thousands of Houston workers who volunteered to temporarily change their hours to see if it could help traffic congestion. Mayor Bill White pushed for the citywide experiment.

BILL WHITE:"Time is what we have on this earth. If somebody's sitting there in the middle of a freeway where they could be seeing a loved one or just doing what they want at the end of the day, I want to give that time back to people."

He called the experiment Flex in the City. For the last two weeks in September some employers allowed workers to get to work earlier and leave earlier, arrive later and leave later, or work a series of longer days and take a day off. The hope was with even a small shift in work schedules traffic would move faster.

DINAH MASSIE MARTINEZ:"We have a system that uses EZ tags.

Dinah Massie Martinez is with Houston Transtar, a 13-county agency that tracks roads and highways with 500 cameras.

MARTINEZ:". . . but we use that same tag and we calculate average traffic speeds along our roads."

The second goal was to measure worker productivity. The mayor hoped employers would see that flexible work doesn't hurt the bottom line. Family advocates have been pushing more family-friendly work schedules for years. But some employers are reluctant to change their 8 to 5 ways. So, Mayor White, a former CEO, reached out to Houston's business leaders.

Bank of America's regional president Ruth Kim already offers several flexible work options. But this experiment let her promote them. She knows some workers fear flexing might suggest they're not committed to their jobs. RUTH KIM:"If you weren't a manager or you were not somebody who was an up-and-comer, there's a stigma attached many times."In the end 130 employers signed on. They in turn recruited more than 10,000 employees to flex and not drive during rush hour at least once during the two-week experiment. And work did not grind to a halt. Kathleen Kelley ran the initiative for the mayor. She's now studying the workers' surveys.

KATHLEEN KELLEY:"Forty-four percent said that they thought their productivity level remained the same with their flexible work option. Thirty-three percent said they thought it was higher. Nineteen percent said they thought it was much higher."

And preliminary results show traffic also improved. Not by much, but on two of Houston's major freeways traffic engineers could measure a one-minute improvement in travel time during peak rush hour. Multiply that by the 32,000 cars on those highways during peak time and more than $10 million would be saved in gas and time a year.

Houston has little room for additional highways. And, yes, the city knows building more mass transit would help. But flexing costs nothing. Still it only saved a minute. And commuter Jennifer Salcetti didn't notice a big difference during Friday's evening rush hour.

JENNIFER SALCETTI: "Seven lanes all backed up. The people on the left are tying to get to the right and vice verse . . . and it's just a parking lot."

But she'll take that minute. One minute less spent in a parking lot adds up to 10 minutes more a week she can spend with her husband.

In Houston, I'm Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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