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Americans Can Be Persuaded to Drive Less

Although lots of places in the United States sample bits and pieces of transportation management, Bellingham, Wash., shows what can happen by taking on the full program.

While Australia is the model for changing driving behavior because it has led citizens to re-consider their “drive-first” mentality, there are American communities that have quietly benefited from soft transportation demand management.

Portland, Ore., is the largest U.S. metropolitan area that has worked with the TravelSmart model. But it, and most other American municipalities, veered away from some seemingly expensive concepts, such as sending bus drivers and bicycle “doctors” to individual homes to reassure wavering citizens. After a four-city Federal Transit Administration pilot during the Bush administration indicated that an American community could expect an 8 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled with an aggressive-passive transportation demand management (TDM) project like TravelSmart, only Bellingham, Wash., population 80,000, kept seeking money to expand.

Its results, released in 2010, indicate that the right combination of individual marketing and electronic maintenance supporting behavioral change can have a powerful effect on drivers. Quietly pushed by metropolitan planning staffer Susan Horst, Whatcom [County] Smart Trips offers alternative transportation users a variety of premiums and coupons for their environmental sensitivity, tying businesses into walking, biking, carpooling and transit.

Combined with calling homes but then dealing only with people who indicate they really want to change their own transportation behavior, the Bellingham results show a 15 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled. For comparison, during 2008’s gasoline price spikes, Americans decreased driving 4.3 percent (and that was the only decline since 1979’s oil embargo.

Unlike the Australians, however, so far no American TDM project has tried to determine the effect of soft TDM marketing on attitudes, budgets and public policy. Few communities have permanent TDM staffs and those that, like Washington, D.C., deal solely with trying to change commute trips which TravelSmart’s founder Werner Brög says are the most difficult trips for any driver to change.

After 300 projects on three continents, Brög says he’s learned that taking a chance of missing a bus is too critical for most employees, and they opt first to ensure their continued employment rather than travel smarter. Furthermore, when American “rideshare” or “commuter connections” projects, like D.C.’s, got started in the wake of the 1970’s oil embargoes, commutes were about 40 percent of all car trips. Today, commutes are 16 percent as the average American’s driving has jumped from 20 miles a day in the 1960s to more than 32 miles today.

Brög’s experience — as well as Australia’s — indicates that once drivers use and become comfortable with alternative transportation for non-time-critical trips, they are more inclined to spread their environmental awareness into commuting and immensely more inclined to demand public spending on bicycling, walking and transit infrastructure.

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