Clear Air Campaign offers driver incentive

By Todd DeFeo

Dannielle Hixson moved from Atlanta to McDonough two years ago when she married. But, she stumbled upon a dilemma n there was no public transportation to take to work.

"I went from taking MARTA for 20 minutes to driving 45 minutes to an hour n one way," Hixson said. "I never thought I'd miss MARTA, but this was more stress than I needed."

When she became pregnant in January 2003, Hixson started looking for an alternative way to commute to her job at the Division of Public Health's Cardiovascular Health Initiative in downtown Atlanta. After some research, she discovered Greyhound's commuter bus service between Macon and Atlanta stopped in Henry County.

"It was a little expensive, but I was putting at least that much in gas and wear and tear on my truck every month," Hixson said. "I told everyone I knew about the bus service."

The service, subsidized by the Georgia Regional Transit Authority, was soon cancelled. And until she took a leave from work to have her baby in September 2003, Hixson once again started driving to work, later opting to take MARTA for a portion of the commute.

After returning from maternity leave in December, Hixson again wanted to find an alternative to driving to work. However, it would take a few months for her to find such a means of commuting.

Since Aug. 2, Hixson has been participating in Cash for Commuters, a program offering incentives to commuters who use mass transportation or carpool. The U.S. Department of Transportation Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds, coupled with a 20 percent matching funds from business and government sponsorships, pays for the program.

Since its October 2002 launch, more than 5,000 metro Atlanta residents have participated in the program. Statistics indicate between 18 and 20 percent of the program's participants are from either Clayton or Henry counties.

The Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) estimates Cash for Commuters participants in the program's first two waves have reduced more than 3,000 vehicle trips each day and taken more than 19.5 vehicle miles off metro roads, as of April.

"I find it is very helpful," said McDonough resident Susan Randall, a Cash for Commuters participant who has been carpooling to Atlanta for three months. "It saves on gas and you are able to drive in the HOV lane, which helps when there is traffic."

According to a pair of surveys of Cash for Commuters participants, prepared by CTE for the Georgia Department of Transportation, a majority of commuters continue using alternative means of commuting even after the incentives end.

According to one survey of Cash for Commuters participants who took part in the initial launch of Cash for Commuters between October 2002 and February 2003, 74 percent continue to use a commute alternative, when no incentive is available to them.

A second survey of Cash for Commuters participants who completed the program during the second offering between May and December 2003, shows 64 percent continue to use a commute alternative.

"The participants I have spoken with who have changed their ways are grateful for the program because it has helped them create habits that are life enhancing," said Leah Culberson of Cookerly Public Relations, speaking on behalf of the campaign. "Studies show it takes 90 days to create a new habit or break an old one. The people who now walk or bike, instead of drive, experience health benefits, weight loss, stress reduction. Those who now use the bus, vans, rideshare tout the fact that they save money on gas, experience stress reduction, increase their sleep levels in the a.m., are not as lonely if they are ridesharing and spending more quality time with their fellow man."

Ellen Macht, executive director of The Clean Air Campaign, says the "results are exciting," citing several reasons.

"First, we're seeing at least as many, if not more people continue to use the program in the short-term after the incentive ends n in last year's survey of the three to six month group, 71 percent continued to use an alternative," Macht said in a news release. "Also, this is the first time we've been able to survey a group that was a full year out of the program, and the fact that so many are still using alternatives really validates the program and the benefits of commute alternatives."

She added: "Finally, even among those who went back to driving alone, most abandoned the change primarily due to factors out of their control, such as losing a carpool partner or changes in work schedules, not because they wanted to go back to sitting alone in traffic."

Likewise, Hixson has no plans of abandoning public transportation even if she isn't compensated.

"As I overheard one of the passengers say to the driver one morning, ?If I ever have to drive in again, I'm just not gonna go," Hixson said. "I was putting more than the cost of the monthly ticket into my truck as gas alone n not to mention the wear and tear on it and me.

"When I ride the bus, I can take a nap n who doesn't need a little more shut-eye? n get in some reading n it's the only time I can to do this now that I have a baby n or chat with other riders n I get to know my neighbors," she said. "I'm definitely a mass transit advocate and the Cash for Commuters program isn't needed to keep me riding."

The program, officials hope, will introduce people who wouldn't normally carpool or use public transportation to start doing so.

"Maybe for some people the program has attracted them to mass transit n and I'm sure that's the intended purpose of it," Hixson said. "For me it was just getting a little bit of extra dough for what I'm already doing."