The history of CAFÉ, furthermore, indicates that any emission gains through higher efficiency will be wiped out by a corresponding increase in miles driven. Although it’s counter-intuitive, this “rebound effect,” as labeled by economist David Greene, works in much the same way that building more highways to solve congestion makes congestion problems worse. As one Virginia study put it, it’s “a futile exercise” to attempt to build out of congestion because more highways makes driving easier, which makes suburban life more attractive, which moves residences further from stores and jobs. One study indicates that 90 percent of new urban and suburban freeways in North America are overwhelmed within five years.
So what can be done?
The answer may lie in Western Australia, where in a modern car culture of freeways and high-rises, Perth and its surrounding suburbs have spent a decade promoting alternative transportation through a German-conceived marketing and research program named “TravelSmart.”
Not only has Western Australia — an area three times the size of Texas — decreased car-miles driven yearly by 14 percent through the marketing of individual households, they’ve done it at the unheard of benefit-cost of 67 to 1. The experience showing people how to conserve auto fuel – plus their health and the lives of their cars — by walking, biking, carpooling and using public transportation has been so successful that Western Australia is expanding the concept into water, energy and recycling in 2008.
“People want to be part of the solution, they just don’t know how,” explains Werner Brög, the founder of the concept. “Across three continents, we’ve found that people always underestimate the time and cost of using the car and overestimate the time and cost of using environmentally friendly modes.
“Our philosophy is that we never tell them what to do. We empower people to do what they can do by addressing those misperceptions.”
Because each individual makes an autonomous decision, transportation economist Ian Ker argues that decreased car use from TravelSmart marketing sticks and, even multiplies, over years. He notes there has been little, if any, bounceback from the first individualized marketing project in South Perth in 1997.
“When we started off with TravelSmart, it was not something that was mainstream anywhere,” he says. “Travel management was seen as managing supply or in terms of pricing. Nobody was thinking that people might willingly get out of their cars, but that’s what happened and, most importantly, they’re staying out.”
In December, Perth opened an over-budget and behind-schedule 88-mile Southern Suburbs Railways with an amazing 90-percent approval rating, indicating – as OECD reports illustrate – the huge public relations carryover of “soft policies” for decreasing congestion. Yet compared to American cities – which lose $63 billion and 3.7 billions hours annually to congestion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute – Western Australia’s 1.5 million citizens faced little traffic backup when they approved the commuter project around the turn of the century.
Under the influence of academic research by Dr. Peter Newman which illustrated a dozen ways to decrease automobile dependence and build stronger communities at the same time, the Perth area began considering alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles after the 1974 and ’79 oil embargoes. Newman’s research into world cities discovered that American cities don’t have a monopoly on wealth but, with a few world exceptions, American urban areas do have a monopoly on transportation inefficiency. Atlanta drivers, for example, annually use 103 gigajoules of energy per capita to get around but people are better off, financially and socially, in Copenhagen which has been shutting roadways and decreasing downtown parking for three decades.
By 1997, when Ker and fellow transportation planner Bruce James sniffed out Brög’s success changing auto behavior in Western Europe, Perth had rebuilt a couple commuter rail lines. The pair’s first TravelSmart pilot showed extensive behavioral change with driving dropping 10 percent and a “first year rate of return of 48 percent to public transport.” All subsequent Western Australia TravelSmart programs – reaching more than 350,000 citizens — show similar or better results.
“TravelSmart has been analyzed to death, more than any other transport change that I know of and I’ve been in transportation planning for 40 years,” Ker, now retired, says. “There’s nothing else that comes close to it. People look at the cost and think it’s a lot of money — about $60 to $70 per household – but the return on it is enormous, up to 70 to one.”