ALTERNATIVES TO DRIVING DOWNTOWN
on Interior Landscape Maintenance Routes
by Joëlle Steele
Driving is that part of maintenance which many interiorscapers find distasteful, particularly in large metropolitan areas where the time spent behind the wheel is not only unproductive, but is highly stressful as well. When a technician arrives at an account after fighting traffic and circling for a parking place, they may not be in a frame of mind suitable for fostering positive client relations or making intelligent plant care decisions. And nowadays, when owners either get their gas bill each month or reimburse mileage, they may well wish they owned a retail shop rather than a service business.
For many metropolitan areas, there are welcome alternatives to driving and the expenses and stress related to it. In cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, where the downtown areas are highly concentrated with viable clients, interiorscapers have developed more efficient ways to organize their maintenance routes. And, for their clientele in outlying areas, they have come to rely on similar methods to achieve maximum efficiency.
Most large cities are well equipped with a variety of public transportation: trains, buses, trollies, light rail, and subways. For many technicians, driving to work would be inconvenient as they can arrive more quickly and less fatigued after a train or bus ride.
Folian and Tiffany's, San Jose, CA, is in the process of considering possible incentive programs that would get more technicians to use public transportation to get to and from work each day. According to President Nan Hoback, "Eighty percent of our technicians already take BART (the electric rail) to work and we were fortunate to find a location for a substation office that is right next to the Union City BART station." This is important since Hoback's technicians start from the office and go to their first accounts from there.
Other companies, such as Tropical Plant Rentals, Chicago, IL, reduce the time their employees spend commuting by having them stop into the office only one day a week. The rest of the week they go directly from their homes to their first accounts. And, like City Gardens, Boston, MA, some companies also try to schedule technicians for work nearest to where they live so that there are no long two-part commutes — one to the office, and another to the first account.
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AND WALKING ROUTES
In a health-conscious society, walking routes are well-received by many employees who stay fit while logging as much as seven miles a day. One technician related her weight loss experience. "I was 120 pounds overweight — double my normal weight — when I started a walking route. I lost it all within the first year. The resulting reduction in illness-related absenteeism, along with the reduced risk of injury in physically fit individuals, makes this sort of success story a plus for employers as well.
Another bonus to routes that emphasize walking and the use of public transportation, is the savings a company can experience in time utilization and vehicle overhead expense. Because walking routes feature accounts which are so close together, driving and parking are most likely to be the most expensive method, particularly when you consider the high cost of automobile insurance in some states. A technician who is accustomed to a walking route and who is physically fit as a result, will walk at a brisk but unhurried pace (most of the time) and make far better time than one who has to go to the vehicle, get out of the parking garage or parking space, drive to the next stop, (probably fighting traffic all the way), and then find a place to park. After that they may still have some distance to walk to the account. If you add to that the problems which are inherent in using a vehicle such as getting gas, having flat tires, engine problems, parking tickets, etc., a walking route can be an answer to an employer's (or employee's) prayer.
For the environment, having a few less vehicles on the road is something that Mother Nature is probably thankful for and tomorrow's generation will surely appreciate any efforts we make today to clean up the air. All in all, walking routes and the use of public transportation seem to provide solutions to a lot of diverse problems.
City Gardens, Boston, MA has had walking routes in downtown Boston since at least 1979 when Claire Winston, Personnel Manager, first joined the company. City Gardens tries to do whatever is most efficient in scheduling maintenance and their company policy does not allow for vehicles in the downtown area. According to Winston their philosophy is, "If the account is not accessible by public transportation you drive, otherwise you walk."
According to Laura Larkin, Service Manager, City Gardens, MA, "The majority of our business is in the downtown area and our horticulturists take public transportation in and then walk from one account to another." Is this a problem during winter weather? Not according to Larkin because, "Most of the accounts are so close together." She further adds that, "Driving and parking are very difficult and employees prefer to walk."
At Tropical Plant Rentals, Chicago, IL, all 58 technicians and their supervisors in the Chicago office walk and use public transportation. According to Kevin Foy, Landscape Architect (former district manager and service manager). "All of downtown Chicago is non-vehicle routes. I've been here ten years and it's always been that way." Most of these employees take public transportation into the downtown area. "Parking is expensive downtown so public transportation is very practical."
On the surface, it seems that non-vehicle maintenance routes would be impossible. After all, maintenance requires a fair amount of equipment. But, companies like Folian and Tiffany's and Tropical Plant Rentals, have not found equipment and supplies to be a hindrance to a walking route. They have watering machines and other large or bulky equipment stored on the premises of some of their larger accounts and the rest of the smaller items are carried by the technician.
Gemma Boscada and Adam Church are the owner-operators of SkyPlant Interiors in San Francisco. As of 2002, they sold off all their non-high-rise residential accounts in order to focus all their sales efforts into one large residential area where they could do the routes on foot with maintenance carts that hold all their tools and watering equipment. Says Boscada, "We saved more than 80% on our vehicle and fuel costs the very first year." Was it hard to make this transition? "Not really," says Church. "We had to walk a lot within these high-rise buildings anyway, so this just got us off the street and into a smaller geographical area that is far more manageable."
In some of the large cities, interiorscape companies even maintain a downtown office to serve the needs of their walking crews. City Gardens has a downtown office which has extra supplies and, according to Larkin, "Horticulturists who need anything extra can also meet up with an operations crew." Winston adds, "It's not usually a problem for our people to carry stuff because they don't have that far to go. They are walking in such a small geographical area."
DROP OFF POINTS AND TEAM WORK
For cities that are spread out and dotted with numerous little "satellite" business centers, drop off points can eliminate having too many vehicles on the road at the same time and can encourage walking routes in areas which would otherwise require an individual to drive to them.
In July of 1990, Hoback decided to get her people off the road and out of traffic, partly for efficiency and partly to reduce driving stress. Folian and Tiffany's services a large geographic area that is very spread out, so they use teams in vans with drop off points along the way. The employees take turns driving which means less driving on an individual basis, and from the drop off points they can walk or take public transportation to their accounts, whichever is most convenient.
This kind of team method really works unlike some maintenance teams which become extremely costly because of the resulting "dead" time, that unprofitable time spent going to and from a destination. Hoback's kind of teamwork could be more aptly defined as a company car pool. The only difference between this kind of car pool and any other kind on the road, is that instead of going to one office together, they are all going to work together at different destinations that are somehow in line with each another along a common path.
While Hoback's team system works most of the time, she admits that there are some occasional drawbacks. "Sometimes team members just don't get along. And, if one person is late to work, everyone is late to their first account as a result." The same is true with traffic delays, "Everyone goes into overtime together." Hoback emphasized, however, that these things do not happen frequently enough to warrant shelving the team system in favor of individual vehicles.
WHEN ALTERNATIVES DON'T WORK
Some metropolitan and suburban areas, such as the California counties of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego, are not entirely suited to non-vehicle maintenance routes for two reasons: 1) the areas are lacking in true "downtown" neighborhoods where a concentration of viable clients would normally be found; and 2) public transportation is not as organized and sophisticated as that found in other large metropolitan areas. The three California counties mentioned have an additional factor: they have over 500 interiorscape companies which results in minimal company penetration of a downtown or neighborhood market in any one area. Many companies do have a lot of clients in a particular neighborhood. However, the saturation does not closely approximate that found in most other large cities that have walking routes.
In California's widely spreadout metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, vehicles are a fact of life. While a few companies have partial walking routes (part of the route is walked and the other part is driven), most rely on the single employee-single vehicle method. Only a handful of companies have even one complete walking route. Those routes are usually once or twice a week. It was impossible to find anyone who used public transportation for a maintenance route or for anything except commuting. Even the light rail that runs from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach does not seem to impact much on routing.
But these California counties are not alone. Many metropolitan areas are unsuited to non-vehicle routes. Ann Perry, President, Perry and Cortez, Inc., Tempe, AZ, used to work as a technician in Los Angeles. "Greater Phoenix is a lot like L.A. Everything is spread out and you have to drive. There just aren't many options for this kind of business in that type of area." Perry's is a small company with a broad territory. "We have accounts in Phoenix, Casa Grande, Tucson, and everywhere in between." Fortunately, most of Perry's accounts are medium to large in size. "Because we travel so far we had to put limits on the size of the accounts we service. Anything less than a two hour stop is just too expensive for us to maintain."
For companies which cater to the suburban residential markets, distance is almost always a factor. Holly Madsen, an independent interiorscaper, Dallas, TX, services only large residential clientele. Her clients, as tightly scheduled as she can get them, are a minimum of one-half hour or 40 miles apart. "I would love to use public transportation because I get so tired of driving, but I have to go where the work is and I love my residential clients." Madsen is in the process of merging with another independent who is in the same situation. "Together we will be able to cut most of our travel time in half."
There are many advantages to walking routes and using public transportation. Most are dependent upon geography and the availability of a reliable public transportation system, however, with team work and drop off points, almost any company can reduce their vehicle related expenses, increase their efficiency, contribute to the physical fitness of their employees, and help their environment — all at the same time!
This article last updated: 01/16/2000.