BEND — It cost $51.65 to fill a 15-gallon tank with regular unleaded gasoline in Bend recently. A year ago, it cost $43.07.

BEND — It cost $51.65 to fill a 15-gallon tank with regular unleaded gasoline in Bend recently. A year ago, it cost $43.07.

That kind of pain at the pump is spurring more Central Oregon employees to find new ways to reduce their commute costs, and more employers are trying to help them out.

A combination of high gas prices and more workers living away from the communities in which they work has boosted business participation in ride-share and van-pool programs to an all-time high, said Kim Curley, community outreach coordinator for Commute Options for Central Oregon. The organization, which works with schools, businesses and local government agencies to find new ways for people to get to their destinations without driving alone in a car, had 22 businesses in its program five years ago and has grown each year since, Curley said.

The agency, which has more information about its programs on its Web site, now partners with 88 businesses around the region on everything from van pools to funding for commute-to-work programs to posters encouraging employees to find alternative ways to get to work, she said.

"We're getting calls and requests from companies that have basically known about Commute Options but have passed," she said. "People want to know about the incentives that are available."

More than 65 percent of consumers claim they will reduce driving if gas prices hit $4 a gallon, according to a survey released Feb. 28 by the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association. About one-third of consumers reported they already drive less since gas hit $3 a gallon, according to the survey.

Diesel prices already are $4 a gallon at some Central Oregon stations, according to the AAA Web site.

Bend Area Transit has seen an increase in bus ridership this year, said Heather Ornelas, transit manager for the city of Bend.

Ornelas attributed the rise, in part, to the cost of fuel. Also, Mount Bachelor has added two van pools to complement its own bus fleet.

Carpooling companies like Greatoutdoors.com in Redmond are taking advantage of local ride-share programs.

"There's definitely the economic side of it, but culturally, we want to encourage our people to car pool," said Jim Helmich, human resources director. Sunnyside Sports, which sells a range of road, mountain and hybrid bikes in Bend, saw a 50 percent spike last year in its commuter bike sales, said Mike Schindler, co-owner and service manager.

Sales of commuter bikes, which typically have fewer gears and are easier to ride in an urban environment than a mountain or road bike, have started slower this season, which Schindler attributes to weather.

"There's more overall awareness of gas prices," he said. "It can be a tipping point for deciding to ride your bike more and cut down on car trips."

For Candy Freiboth, the need to ditch the automobile is threefold: high gas prices, air pollution and a chance to get back in shape. Freiboth is a family service worker for High Desert Education Service District's Ready Set Go program and makes home visits to first-time mothers around Bend.

She will make her daily four to five home visits around town riding a mountain bike that will be equipped with a trailer to carry her documents and the toys she brings children, she said.

"Gas prices are motivating me to change my habits," Freiboth said. "My job is focused on wellness. This is a great way for me to get back in shape."

Several of the region's larger companies, including Mount Bachelor ski area, Sunriver Resort and Cessna Aircraft Co., provide vans for their employees to get to work, Curley said.

Commute Options received a grant in November from the Oregon Department of Transportation that pays for about half the lease of the vans, which are leased from two Portland companies, she said.

The balance of the van costs are typically covered by employers or through a small fee charged to employees, Curley said.

Mount Bachelor, which for several years has run four buses per day for its daytime shift workers from its Bend parking lot, began this season to operate a pair of smaller van pools from Bend and Sunriver for swing shift and out-of-the-area workers, respectively, said Carly Carmichael, director of marketing.

The shuttle helps the employees who work odd hours but are too few in number to justify a large bus, Carmichael said.

Another company, Redmond-based Greatoutdoors.com, has tried to infuse its company's culture into the drive-less campaign. The online retailer of outdoor products, which moved to Redmond from Kirkland, Wash., in the fall of 2006, is signing up with Commute Options, said Jim Helmich, human resources director.

"... We've hooked up with the Commute Options program to bring awareness that people can car pool to work, and folks who live close by can bike to work," Helmich said

Greatoutdoors.com has places for bike storage and showers in its Redmond facility, Helmich said.

Eventually, companies like Greatoutdoors.com and other firms like T-Mobile, which are next to each other in Redmond's east-side industrial parks, can coordinate joint ride-shares or possibly a van pool, Commute Options' Curley said.

"To make a big van pool work, you need a large pool of employees in a certain area," she said. "There needs to be employees who have similar work schedules."

At the St. Charles medical centers in Bend and Redmond, workers have reduced their vehicle miles by 148,900 since October by using a variety of ways to get to work, Curley said.

The company's employees get discounts at a variety of Central Oregon businesses through a program that logs each time they commute to work without driving alone in a car. That means they could walk, bike, take the bus or work from home, she said.

After 45 such roundtrips are logged, the employee gets a $20 gift certificate to businesses that include Deschutes Brewery, the Foot Zone and Pine Tavern, Curley said.

"It's shocking how fast the miles rack up," she said. "St. Charles foots most of the bill."

About a third of the program costs are paid for by the Oregon Department of Energy's Business Energy Tax Credits, Curley said.