The Atlanta metropolitan area is one of the fastest growing population centers in the nation, and the Georgia Department of Transportation is working to make sure that having more people does not mean having more air pollution.
To accomplish that, GDOT has a suite of air quality initiatives, including diesel retrofits, improvements to highway incident management, and traffic signal optimization.
Of these, one of the lowest cost efforts with measurable results is Georgia Commute Options, GDOT’s travel demand management program operated in partnership with the Atlanta Regional Commission and local Transportation Management Associations (TMAs).
The program provides multiple benefits to the dynamic Atlanta region, according to Phil Peevy, GDOT’s Air Quality and Technical Resource Branch Chief. Congestion on the area’s highways is reduced when residents choose alternatives to driving by themselves, eliminating approximately 1.1 million vehicle miles traveled daily. Also, air pollution emissions are reduced by an estimated 550 tons per day.
Additionally, there are the intangible benefits of creating a more livable, friendly community for residents. “It is such a beneficial overall project,” Peevy said.
Managing Travel Demand: A Low-Cost Option
Georgia Commute Options operates with funding from the Federal Highway Administration through its Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program. Recent studies and information from the FHWA indicate that travel demand management is a low cost but effective means of reducing air emissions. As compared to other programs such as transit upgrades or diesel retrofit programs, travel demand management ranks sixth in funding but third highest in total projects obligated.
Georgia Commute Options tackles the problem of single-occupancy vehicle travel in a number of ways. For instance, the program facilitates carpooling by making it easier to find people to share a car with. Those interested in participating can register at the program website where they will be joining tens of thousands of people already participating. The program matches carpoolers together based on where they live and where they work.
Additionally, the Georgia Commute Options offers a “Guaranteed Ride Home” option in which registered carpoolers can receive up to five rides per year—with some restrictions—in any of 20 counties in the region.
Georgia Commute Options also promotes vanpooling, which can carry up to 15 passengers to work. As with carpools, the program website helps participants find vanpools that operate close to home and work and includes the guaranteed ride home for unexpected situations. Public education and outreach for the carpool and vanpool programs are “100 percent eligible” for CMAQ funding, Peevy said.
Employers can partner with Georgia Commute Options to provide incentives to their employees to find commuting alternatives. The program provides free services to partners, such as consultations, metrics, webinars on alternative work arrangements, onsite events, and customized employee surveys. By offering alternative transportation options to commuters, these programs help employers to boost employee morale, enhance recruitment efforts, and reduce parking and facilities costs, Peevy said.
At present, more than 1,600 employers and property managers are participating, according to the website, and awards are presented annually in recognition of excellence.
Having a telework program is one thing an employer can do to participate, and Georgia Commute Options provides assistance, webinars, and a toolkit to design a program that works best for a company or organization. Sample policies, telework agreements, and memos to management, as well as surveys and checklists are some of the resources available on the website. Georgia Commute Options also sponsors a yearly Telework Week to train both workers and managers on successful telework arrangements.
Biking to work also is supported and promoted by Georgia Commute Options. The program offers on its website links to information regarding trails and other bicycle facilities, bike safety classes and advocacy, and a smart phone application developed by Georgia Tech that records bicycle travel data. Also, there are links to bicycle maps issued by the Atlanta Regional Commission and to GDOT standards, planning and guidance for bike and pedestrian facilities. Annually, the program sponsors a bike challenge, according to Peevy, which includes a series of outreach events.
Additionally, the Georgia Commute Options website provides links and information regarding nearly 20 transit systems both within the metropolitan Atlanta region and in other parts of the state. For example, the recent initiation of streetcar service in downtown Atlanta provides a new transit option that interconnects with the heavy rail system operated by MARTA, to fill in gaps in the public transportation system. The streetcar, a joint operation headed by the city of Atlanta, currently covers 2.7 miles with plans for future expansion throughout the downtown central business district.
Georgia Commute Options uses the power of technology to educate commuters, consolidate resources, and disseminate information, mostly through the program website. GDOT used a consultant to develop and provide ongoing operation of the website, according to Peevy. “However, Georgia DOT owns the website,” Peevy said.
Using resources from a previous website created by GDOT, the consultants made some enhancements and relaunched it as GaCommuteOptions.com. “Over the past year, improvements have been made to streamline the website to make it easier for users to find information, request materials, and sign up for Georgia Commute Options programs,” Peevy said.
In addition, to the website, the program holds a variety of events across the 20-county Atlanta area each month to educate commuters about the program.
A key piece to attracting new participants is the incentive program for clean commuters which is funded with CMAQ funds, these incentives include:
- $3 a day, up to $100, for commuters to try out a clean commute option and log their trips on the program website;
- a $25 prize from a monthly drawing of the commuters who log clean trips on the website;
- $40-$60 monthly gas cards for carpools, depending on ridership; and
- a $50 vanpool ride referral, for vanpoolers who refer a new vanpool rider and the new rider completes three consecutive months in a vanpool.
The incentives have been successful so far at reducing single-occupancy vehicle travel. Citing studies conducted by the Center for Transportation and the Environment on behalf of GDOT, Peevy said that with the $3-a-day program, 85 percent of the participants have continued with their clean commuting choices for as much as 24 months after completing the program.
Furthermore, the Georgia Commute Honors are held annually to recognize employer partners, property managers and individual commuters for their outstanding efforts, according to Peevy. “Publicly recognizing the employers that go the extra mile to make clean commute programs available to their employees goes a long way toward making those partners feel valued by the program, and thereby makes them more likely to continue their efforts,” Peevy said. The honorees are all participants in CMAQ-funded programs, Peevy said, and the ceremony is covered by a combination of CMAQ and state funds.
Georgia Commute Options is essentially attempting to change human behavior, and “it takes a while to do that,” Peevy said. He said the program tries to “focus on the long-term change.”
Also, since Georgia Commute Options is a completely voluntary program, “gas prices play a major role in participation numbers,” Peevy said. When gas is inexpensive and plentiful, participation in the program goes down, Peevy said.
Additionally, Atlanta has a federally-designated “smog season” that runs from April 1 to October 31. That is the busiest time for transportation demand management programs, and the best time for Georgia Commute Options to roll out new incentives and programs, Peevy said.
In 2015, for instance, the program offered the “Commute Pursuit,” a challenge to find better commute options. The challenge, which ran until July 31, included cash incentives to find a carpool, answering daily trivia questions about commuting, and posting pictures of clean commuting to social media. The promotion spurred an increase in participation. More than 500 people registered with Georgia Commute Options during the promotional period, with 101 of these commuters entering the $3 a day programs.
In regard to the incentive programs, a consultant handles the day-to-day operations. “Each month, the contractor runs reports to determine which commuters are eligible to win prizes then sends the prize recipients an e-mail with instructions to redeem their reward,” Peevy said. The prizes can be in the form of Visa reward cards, or in some cases a retail purchase reward, according to Peevy.
Peevy said the Georgia Commute Options program could easily be modified for use in other states, noting that there are a few states that have already done this exact thing.
“I would also recommend to anyone starting a new program from the ground up to keep their initial goals realistic and understand these programs can take time to get up and running,” he added.