August 1, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 12:26 pm

Tales From The Road: A look at commuting patterns in Central Massachusetts

Editor's Note: This story is part of the Tales From The Road
package. For more stories, including profiles of
local commuters, click here.

For four years Keith Bergman, the town administrator in Littleton, used to sneak out of work a little early on Friday afternoons. After all, he had a four-hour commute ahead of him.

While Bergman called the small island town of Nantucket and the very tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown home for two years each, he also rented an apartment in Acton where he would stay during the week.

But every Friday — weather depending — he would drive about two hours to Hyannis, then jump on an hour-and-a-half ferry and get picked up by his wife, Margaret. On Sunday night, he'd start over, doing the whole commute in reverse to get back for work Monday morning.

"For four years it was just a part of my life," said Bergman, who in April moved to Concord after his wife got a new job. Now, his commute is about 20 minutes — sometimes 25 with traffic.

Such is the life of a commuter: Long drives, multiple transfers, sitting in traffic and paying ever-skyrocketing prices at the fuel pump.

A variety of programs have been set up to encourage alternate commuting methods, such as public transportation, carpooling or riding a bicycle to work. Such methods are better for the environment and can save money for commuters and the state, it is argued.

But the alternatives don't work for everyone, admits Stephen O'Neil, administrator of the Worcester Regional Transit Authority.

An estimated 80 percent of commuters in Worcester County drive to work alone, which is a number that O'Neil is certain can be reduced.

The challenge is convincing the Bay State's 3.2 million commuters that there are other ways to get to work than just driving alone.

By The Numbers

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 4.5 percent of Massachusetts residents walk to work, which is compared to less than 3 percent nationally. Middlesex County has twice the rate of residents that ride a bike to work compared to the national average. And statewide, Massachusetts has almost double the number of commuters using public transportation compared to the U.S. population.

But Bay State residents also endure a longer commute than the average American.

Massachusetts commuters take an average of 27.1 minutes to get to work, which is longer than the national rate by nearly two minutes.

An area that has a lot of people with long commutes can provide clues about the region, according to Eric Bourassa, transportation manager for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the Boston-based statewide study organization.

If people are willing to commute a half an hour every day, that must mean it's a desirable place to live and work.

But it could also point to a less-optimistic theory: That there is not enough housing stock available at the right price for working-aged individuals. Housing targeted at blue-collar workers can encourage families that have children to move into an area, which can equate to increased costs for the local education system.

"Municipalities want tax revenue, but they don't want the people that come along with it," Bourassa said.

So people are pushed into areas farther away from employment centers, sometimes left to commute long distances.

Pooling Resources

State organizations have been set up to help remind people that there are ways to get to work other than just driving alone.

MassRides, for example, is a division within the state Department of Transportation that encourages alternative transportation methods for commuters, be it walking, biking, carpooling or using public transportation.

In fact, a variety of incentives have been created to encourage people to consider alternate commutes.

NuRides is a program that rewards members for using public transportation. Residents sign up online, log their use of public transportation and at certain milestones redeem their miles to receive coupons to restaurants and retail stores.

Tax incentives are also available. Federal law allows businesses to underwrite the cost of employee public transportation or carpooling for up to $230 per employee per month as tax free. Those savings are intended to be passed on to the commuters.

MassRides partners with more than 420 businesses around the state and offers a trained state official to come into a work site and answer questions for employees or hand out information encouraging alternative commuting methods.

Some businesses, like UMass Medical School in Worcester, are finding that partnering with an organization like MassRides is not just beneficial for employees, but for their organization as well.

Team Effort

James Fessenden, a spokesperson for the medical school and a member of the school's Growing Green sustainability committee, said educating employees about alternative transportation methods fits in with the school's goals of encouraging healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyles.

As such, the medical school tries to make alternate commutes easy for workers and students. There are an estimated 300 members of the school's community signed up in a carpooling database, which allows participants to find commuters with whom to share a ride to work.

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority has seen a spike in ridership in recent years, according to O'Neil, its administrator. Usage has increased by between 3 and 4.5 percent in each of the past three years, he said.

And the organization has big plans to make the service even more attractive for users. In the coming months, new digital signs are expected to be installed to alert users when the next bus is arriving. Commuters will also be able to track buses in real time online or on mobile devices.

Not For Everyone

Despite all the advances, alternative commuting methods just simply aren't convenient for some people.

Bergman, the Littleton town administrator who endured a four-hour commute twice a week to spend weekends at the beach, said in Littleton there is a need for increased commuter rail service, especially from Boston into the suburbs, or the so-called "reverse commute."

That could be coming, as state officials are planning an upgrade to the Fitchburg commuter rail line. Similar efforts are underway along the Framingham commuter rail line.

Bergman would have liked more options when he was commuting out to the Cape and the island each week for four years.

"Unfortunately there weren't too many people commuting out to Nantucket every night for me to have a carpool buddy," he said.

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