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Incentives to Make Public Transportation More Appealing


Image souce: freefotouk, Flickr

When millions of Americans start their cars to begin their morning commute, few likely consider what economists call opportunity cost. The rule of opportunity cost notes that we make a sacrifice in order to obtain a desired product. In the case of cars, we often sacrifice time, money for auto-related expenses, and safety in order to have the convenience and privacy of driving to and from work. Many drivers make this trade-off without giving much thought to the inefficiencies of driving alone. Some cities hope to change this way of thinking.

For municipalities, the effects of trade-offs are widespread. Traffic congestion is common on America's roads, causing delays and headaches for many. To help balance the effects of traffic congestion, many cities have turned to transit incentives as a way to make the trade-off for cars less appealing.

The City of Alexandria, Virginia developed Transportation Management Plans (TMPs) in 1987, as a means to encourage residents to use public transportation. The program requires development projects of certain sizes (see chart below) to submit  transportation management plans, which usually include incentives for public transit use with the intention to reduce single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) use.

Alexandria_tmp_chart"The City requires commercial and residential developments to have a Transportation Management Program…," said Janet Gregor, Council Manager of the Carlyle Community Council, a community organization based in Alexandria. "[The program acts] to mitigate traffic congestion by reducing the use of single-occupancy vehicles in the City, while increasing the use of transit and alternative modes of transportation."

The Carlyle Community Council manages the Carlyle Community in the City of Alexandria and has developed a number of incentives for residents of the 76.5 acre neighborhood, which houses the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The incentives include discounted tickets for the Metro rail line (which operates throughout the Washington, D.C. Metro area) and shuttle bus service to the nearest Metro station. In addition, a car sharing service is expected to launch this month through a partnership with Hertz.

The Transportation Management Plan is funded by property owners through an assessment. No taxes are used for the funding of the incentive program. This translates into savings for area residents and less traffic on the City's streets.

The Carlyle Community Council manages one of many TMPs in the City of Alexandria. There are approximately 60 TMPs in operation throughout the City. These organizations develop plans as required by the City in a number of ways, but certain incentives create stronger plans.

"Most of the success comes from organizations that have shuttles," said Megan Cummings, the City of Alexandria's TMP Coordinator. "People make decisions to live there because of the shuttles."

Traffic in the City of Alexandria is a problem for both residents and the City. The shuttles help to further reduce the need for single-occupancy vehicles and offer residents convenient connections to public rail lines. Moreover, the shuttles are a means to further influence drivers to take public transit for many trips.

The City of Alexandria is not alone in making public transit more appealing through incentives. Other cities have initiated similar programs aimed at reducing traffic and creating more environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

In nearby Arlington, Virginia, a similar transit incentive program is underway. The Transportation Demand Management scheme is intended to reduce the reliance on automobiles for the city's residents, while also influencing how commuters think about transportation. By relying on incentives, Arlington looks to improve access to public transportation, bike parking facilities and the promotion of carpool options.

"Just as our transportation choices influence our personal lives in many ways, demand management is part of the solution to a variety of community-wide challenges," notes the Transit Demand Management website.

The City of Arlington works directly with developers to design properties with transit and commuter service in mind. By doing so, the City can create neighborhoods that rely less on single-occupancy vehicle use and more on transit, biking and walking.

In the Seattle area, another transit incentive program is taking place. In King County, Washington an incentive program has paved the way for free bus rides for commuters. Through the Transit Incentive Program (TIP), county residents are eligible to receive eight free rides on the county's Metro bus system when at least one vehicle is registered in each household. The county has witnessed high demand for the incentive.

"We have been running the TIP program since June of 2012," said Bob Virkelyst, King County's Supervisor of Marketing and Service Information. "Through February, 2013 we have issued 464,344 actual bus tickets and an additional 126,752 in tickets donated to human service agencies."

King County residents can choose from over 200 bus routes, which are designed to offer easy access to public transportation. The program was developed to influence car owners to use the county's bus service and the TIP program is helping to increase ridership.

The transit incentive programs taking place in Alexandria, Arlington and King County offer only a few examples of how municipalities are working to reduce single-occupancy vehicle use. Other municipalities realize the importance of similar schemes. A number of state governments offer transit incentives for their employees. While such localized incentives are beneficial, nationwide public transportation use is still low overall.

On average, 76 percent of Americans commute to work in single-occupancy vehicles, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Statistically, only 5 percent of Americans take public transportation. While some regions contain pockets of high public transit use (such as the N.E. Corridor), the fact is that cities need ways to influence individuals to use public transit instead of driving alone.

For the cities that offer transit incentives, the plan is to not only get commuters out of their cars in exchange for public transportation, but to also change the way residents think about transit. The intention is to show commuters first hand that public transportation is a valuable option. This makes the opportunity cost higher for cars and more appealing for public transportation.

Howard Jennings, Director of Research and Development at Mobility Lab, a research and development initiative of Arlington County, notes that survey data show that residents are making a change in the way they commute to or from Arlington County based on initiatives. "We have some good research and tracking that does show the impact of [incentive] offers that add up to about 45,000 trips per day."