Archive for June, 2011

I fully realize that it wasn’t long ago that I waxed poetic about the wonders of commuting, but to be perfectly honest, I’m just not feeling it this month. Maybe it was the woman whose endless coughing punctuated Monday morning’s bus ride, idling in gridlock on I-90 for an hour and a half while the sun slipped away last week, or a combination of losing my iPhone (no games! no email!) and the residually chilly weather keeping me off my bike. Whatever it is, as much as I love cozy Capitol Hill, it would dramatically impact my quality of life to live a bit closer to where I work (though at 12 miles, my commute is slightly less than the 14.97 miles the average worker in Bellevue commutes). The fact that I can play mix and match with my commute does add a feeling of agency to the equation, but there’s still something unsettling about losing an average of 3 hours of your day to an activity that by no stretch of the imagination is fun.

A potential solution to, what I’m sure is, a fairly common predicament are initiatives like Washington DC’s new Live Near Your Work Program.

Much like Bellevue, where only 17% of downtown workers actually live within Bellevue city limits, Washington DC has long struggled with the image and partial reality of being a commuter city.  A pilot partnership between the Washington DC’s Office of Planning and select employers throughout the city seeks to remedy just that, by handing out a total of $200,000 to people who are willing to move within two miles of their work, within a half mile of a Metro station, or within a quarter mile of a “high-quality” bus corridor. The Office of Planning explains the rationale behind the program, saying that that people who live closer to their work spend less money and time commuting, employers get the benefit of reduced parking costs and “better on time and work performance”, and the city gets spruced up urban neighborhoods and a wider tax base. And theoretically, the region will see less traffic congestion and air pollution as a result.  The Office of  Planning will match employer contributions (up to $6,000 per participating employee) to attract and retain DC residents, and partner employers will be selected via a competitive application process based upon their ability to administer the pilot program, offer homebuyer education, and provide matching grants for their employees. The pilot program has money for approximately 60 employees, and encourages home ownership in all areas of the city.

Critics have argued that the program is throwing free money at people who might have been planning to move somewhere else anyway, is not scalable, and that the money ought to be directed towards expanding metro rail and bus service.

But the Office of Planning responded by explaining that the LNYW program encourages employers to redirect the upwards of $10,000 they would spend to subsidize employee parking over a 5 year period towards a longer lasting investment for their employees. They are using this pilot model to develop best practices, and the program would only be continued and expanded if the study is able to measure the program’s benefits and resources are available.

Historical precedent for initiatives like this comes from Baltimore’s 14-year-old Live Near-Your-Work program, which provides grants to fully benefited employees of selected employers in search of homes in Baltimore. Its goal was to reduce sprawl, cut commutes and increase home ownership in designated areas slated for redevelopment. Initially, the state, city and employer (Hopkins is the largest among several) each contributed $1,000. Since its inception, the program has expanded dramatically and has helped approximately 300 people purchase homes in Baltimore, revitalizing downtrodden urban areas and improving quality of life in the process.  The program currently partners with over 50 employers, working closely with John Hopkins to provide up to $18,000 to employees of the University.

While our Eastside darling Bellevue is certainly not in need of revitalization and continues to grow organically, there is still a significant overhang of vacant residential space downtown. One could expect that increasing density in the urban core would only add to the kinds of things people love about being in a city—street food, independent shops, art, and increased transit service—and would certainly make an impact on the regional congestion that just doesn’t seem to dissipate.

Do you think programs like these are a good use of money and are worth replicating? Or should city governments instead spend dollars on improving bus service, or make driving so unpleasant through taxing and tolling that people would never consider doing it? If you’re a commuter, what’s the tipping point that would cause to consider moving closer to where you work?  Weigh in below!

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 3:47 PM | by admin | Add a Comment

The Connect Downtown Partnership recently conducted a transportation survey of downtown Bellevue commuters and residents to determine the commute habits, motivations and program awareness of individuals within set boundaries of downtown. The survey was developed with the intention of determining what messaging would best target this audience, and will be used to inform future programming, branding and messaging of Choose Your Way Bellevue.

The survey was taken by 394 individuals, 61% of whom were commuters to downtown Bellevue, 37% of whom were downtown residents that commute to other locations, and 2% of whom who both lived and worked in downtown. The survey went out in postcard form to all residents of downtown Bellevue, was posted in commercial buildings and was live on the Choose Your Way Bellevue website May 1 through June 14, 2011.

The majority of survey respondents commuted to work by driving alone (44.8%). In explaining their top reasons for doing so, respondents listed that were no reasonable transit options, they require the use of a car for errands before and after work, and because it saves time.  37% of this population reported that increased bus service would motivate them to ditch their vehicles, though in an illuminating statistic, 22.7% of drivers indicated that nothing would encourage them to change their habits.

Riding the bus was the second most cited commute method, comprising 21% of the mode-share, followed by carpool at 10.4%. The top reason for using both these modes was cost savings. Respondents also cited stress reduction, time savings, convenience and an employer subsidy for doing so. 5.5% of respondents walked to work, and 2% of respondents reported cycling to work.

When respondents were asked about general motivators contributing to their choice of commute mode, the top three reasons were convenience, cost savings and time savings. The top impacts to commute mode choice were transit service levels, traffic levels, and gas prices.

Respondents were also asked the minimum monthly financial incentive that would encourage them to try a non drive-alone mode. The majority of people indicated that $50 would help them make a change, though $100 was the second most oft-cited amount.

These results are quite illuminating as Choose Your Way Bellevue moves forward in branding, messaging and programming efforts directed towards downtown residents and employees. It is clear that we are working with a primarily drive-alone population, and there are some major obstacles to overcome to change these habits.

Considering that neither Sound Transit or King County Metro are in a financial position to expand service in the near future, we will not be able to use that as a motivating factor to encourage non-drive alone habits. Furthermore, there is a segment of the population who claims they would never change their method, which is understandable given that the ample amount of free parking in Bellevue keeps the actual costs to drivers down.

But perhaps we could do a better job at quantifying the cost savings, stress reduction and health benefits of participating in alternate commute modes. Driving eats up a large portion of American’s annual budget, and is the second highest cost behind housing,  but because driving has become so normalized in our culture, these costs remain invisible to many people. Whether it’s getting people excited about what they could do with the money saved by not driving, or demonstrating how often during peak travel times, driving isn’t actually faster (which my anecdotal evidence on I-90 overwhelmingly supports), there must be a way to show it visually, either through infographics or videos.

Additionally, walkers and cyclists overwhelmingly report being happier and healthier commuters, so we ought to encourage them to be more vocal (though not evangelical!) about their commute stories. Cycling burns an average of 300 calories per hour, and walking burns 136. Compare that to the 80 or so you burn while sedentary (car commuting) and active transportation starts to look like a winning option, eliminating the need for extra time at the gym and requiring no monetary contribution beyond start up costs.

But the reality is that most people live far enough away from their jobs that walking or cycling is not a viable option—only 6% of workers in Downtown Bellevue report actually living downtown, and the average commute distance is 14 miles. There’s always the possibility of combining active transportation with public transportation, and 7% of our respondents indicated being multi-modal commuters. But commuters tend to dread transfers, which add stress and uncertainty what can often be a lengthy commute.

Stay tuned—our next post will be about programs around the country that are encouraging people to live closer to where they work, which will help to alleviate some of the necessary driving wrought by extended distances between home and work.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 10:43 AM | by admin | Comments (2)

Tomorrow is national Dump the Pump Day, and transit agencies across the country are encouraging solo drivers to fatten their wallets by ditching the car in favor of public transportation.

From the American Public Transportation Association:

“Riding public transit is the quickest way to beat high gas prices. Our recent Transit Savings Report shows that a two person household that downsizes to one car can save, on the average, more than $10,000 a year.”

With high gas prices and household budgets already stretched thin, thousands of Puget Sound commuters are already experiencing the benefits of using transit.

“Puget Sound residents have so many great alternatives to driving—buses, light rail, streetcars, trains, vanpools and ferries. Dump the Pump Day is a great time to try out a new ride and save some money,” said Kevin Desmond, General Manager of King County Metro Transit in a press release.

To celebrate, there will be a variety of activities happening throughout the region. King County Metro Transit, in partnership with Sound Transit, will thank riders at the Bellevue, Federal Way, Northgate and Tukwila transit centers for “Dumping the Pump” and being part of the solution to traffic congestion. Riders will be greeted with a free cup of coffee and pastries donated by area businesses during the Thursday morning commute. Metro will also be emphasizing all the transit options available to commuters, including how to avoid upcoming tolls on the SR 520 bridge and congestion on the Alaska Way Viaduct by taking advantage of expanded transit options.

In addition, Choose Your Way Bellevue will be giving away cookies and coffee at the Commuter Connection store at the Bellevue Transit Center from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Also, Sound Transit will be giving away several ORCA cards loaded with $10 for regional travel as part of a Twitter promotion (@SoundTransit). Participants can “retweet” a special message all week and be entered to win a drawing for the ORCA cards.

But this needn’t be a one day thing—we encourage you to find out how much money you could potentially save using the Fuel Savings Calculator on the APTA website. By entering some basic information such as miles traveled each day, vehicle fuel economy and local transit fare, an individual can instantly see their personal potential savings.

Please join us in celebrating public transportation—and saving money in the process! See you on the bus!

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011 1:26 PM | by admin | Add a Comment

The Embarq Global Network for Sustainable Transportation just released a seminal report called “From Here to There: Marketing and Branding Public Transportation,” which investigates myriad ways cities and transit agencies can work to give public transportation a competitive edge.

From the rather ominous introduction:

“Major automobile companies spend billions of dollars annually to advertise their products to customers. Major auto companies collectively spent $21 billion worldwide and it looks like their investments are working. Car ownership is on the rise across the globe, in countries like China, India and Brazil. Such overwhelming statistics in favor of private vehicles, backed by billion dollar investments in advertising campaigns, illustrate the necessity for public transportation to play catch up in this marketing game.”

When it comes to marketing public transportation, so much of the focus is placed upon the technical and financial aspects of getting public transit projects off the ground that branding and marketing often become an afterthought. This report takes issue with the idea that marketing is a “luxury” that transit agencies cannot afford, and argues that cultivating a better public image attracts riders, leading to higher revenue and demand for service, creating what Embarq consultants refer to as a “virtuous cycle.”

In short, it is not enough for transit agencies to assume ridership by anticipating a desire among the citizenry to be virtuous, or even thrifty. Transit agencies must think like marketing executives…and beat the competition. This boils down to the following:

Transit agencies must

1. Attract new riders by making the system legible and accessible

2. Retain existing riders by listening and responding to customer feedback.

3. Secure political and financial support by running eye catching and persuasive campaigns

So what can transit agencies do to build their market share, in the face of the influence of automobile advertising dollars on public perception? The report highlights at length the Los Angeles Metro Authority’s 2009 ad campaign that promoted taking public transportation as a hip solution to congestion problems endemic to the city. It was called “Opposites” and presented clever graphics positing public transit as the angelic counter to polluting driving habits. To help spread the message, they handed out free t-shirts to trendsetters in urban neighborhoods, who then served as ambassadors for the service. This campaign was successful in generating support for Measure R, a 1/2 cent sales tax that is expected to generate 40 billion dollars over the next 30 years for improving transit services in LA.

Watch the video below:

LA Metro: Promoting Mass Transit from EMBARQ Network on Vimeo.

Another public transportation success story not mentioned in the report, but worth examining comes from St Louis, where in 2010 voters approved a ½ cent sales tax to fund service operations and expand light rail.  In St Louis, the challenge was to convince voters who do not ride transit that they should care about it. (The ridership is relatively small among the general population, and only 3 percent take public transit to work).  In order to do this, the campaign put a face on public transit to show that even though most people do not ride transit, almost everyone depends on workers who do ride transit. Television ads, for example, showed a wide swath of recognizable figures in St Louis reminding voters that the people who take care of us in hospitals and the people who serve us coffee in the morning depend on public transit. The centerpiece of the campaign was the slogan: “Some of us ride it. All of us need it.” View campaign videos here.

Some advice included in the EMBARQ report that may prove useful to our regional transit providers include enhancing user education efforts such as offering free rides on new services (perhaps the new Bellevue-Redmond Rapid Ride, scheduled to begin in Fall 2011 would be a good opportunity),  heightening their online engagement strategies by integrating dynamic Facebook and Twitter platforms, giving unexpected and colorful facelifts to existing facilities, going door to door to answer questions, inviting politicians on inaugural rides for new services, and interjecting some fun into an activity that is often associated with workday tedium.

While fairly comprehensive, one glaring absence from the report is any sort of guidance for how transit agencies should redirect funds towards marketing in this continuing era of austerity. King County Metro has cut back on much of their programming in order to preserve existing service, so for them, marketing may be literally be a luxury that they cannot afford. Perhaps Embarq should follow up with a piece called “Marketing Public Transportation Part 2: Closing the Gap Through Public/Private Partnerships.”

However, one thing is for certain. Transit agencies throughout the country need to begin promoting themselves like a business—and not simply as a public good—for the ultimate win. Do you have any ideas for how to make public transportation more competitive? Weigh in below:

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 4:51 PM | by admin | Add a Comment

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