TravelSmart

Even while man’s effect on global warming is unresolved, most analysts – from Nobel economist Gary Becker to Canadian environmental scientist David Suzuki to Charles Maxwell, the “dean of energy analysts” – contend individual transportation must be addressed for North America to reduce foreign trade and policy issues, curtail congestion and decrease the emission of C02 and other greenhouse gases.

At the same time, although editorialists at, for example, The New York Times have called for significant increases in gasoline and diesel taxes to tackle these problems while funding growth in transit and other environmentally-friendly transportation, North American voters and politicians still fail to understand the effects of our “love affair with the automobile.” And with the mainstream media – dependent upon automobile advertising – reluctant to connect the dots, North Americans rarely understand that individual transportation, not industry or commerce, is the prime factor in greenhouse emissions. Many, indeed, still demand additional highways, rather than substantive increases in transit service, to mitigate congestion.

Transportation, however, emitting 1,959 million metric tons of C02 annually, produces the most greenhouse emissions of any of the economy’s four sectors, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported in November 2006 while noting that the primary income-producing sectors of the economy – industry and commerce – have decreased C02 emissions relative to GDP by 25 percent over the past 20 years.

More than eight in 10 tons in transportation emissions come from auto fuels but in the two years following “An Inconvenient Truth,” U.S. car mileage and gasoline demand has increased two percent annually. The two North American countries contain one in 20 world citizens but provide half of the entire planet’s automotive carbon dioxide emissions. Politicians in both countries, however, are terrified of offending drivers, most of whom are voters. The Suburban Soccer Mom in her SUV today dominates politics because she is a consistent voter enticed by both the “compassion” message of liberal politicians and the “protection” message of conservatives. No candidate can see any political future in angering her by saying what the data is loudly proclaiming: “You need to get out of your car and still get your kids to school and still get to work. Oh, by the way, still go shopping a lot.”

The bottom line is that North Americans use too much carbon per capita – double what the European uses, six times what individual Chinese use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy – and much of the American burn comes in driving 2.9 trillion miles annually in 211 billion car trips, by far the highest numbers in the world. The 12 most transportation inefficient cities in the world are all in North America.

The political issue is so daunting, meanwhile, that even Al Gore barely mentions personal vehicle usage in “An Inconvenient Truth” and failed to mention autos in his Nobel acceptance speech. And he’s not presently a politician. When he was, during the 2000 campaign when gasoline prices spiked at $1.81 a gallon, the fear of Suburban Soccer Moms in SUVs caused him to demand that President Clinton release petroleum from the Strategic Oil Reserve, undermining the sole success in America’s continual quest for “energy independence.”

With America’s auto fleet turning over about eight percent a year, future Corporate Average Fuel Economy increases, plus any hydrogen or fuel cell cars which require huge investments in infrastructure, can be only a drop in any solution. In the seven years the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now predicts the world has to stabilize CO2 emissions before losing a quarter of plant and animal species, only half of America’s 226 million vehicles would be replaced – and most replacements would still pollute if, perhaps, not as much.

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.”

Today, working out of an imposing 1860 convict-built prison, Brog’s TravelSmart crew spends hours on the phone to Perth-area citizens. Instructed carefully not to formally market, and indeed to talk about pretty much anything in, first of all, making a personal connection, TravelSmart callers conclude each initial phone call by asking if the household used, or would consider using, alternative transportation.

If the answer is “no,” the caller hangs up and the person is only bothered by a mailing explaining the importance of a tuned automobile engine and fully aired tires. If the answer is “yes” or “maybe,” that household is marketed with a huge variety of information based on the location of the household and where its members need to go and when.

Respondents can get, for example, the exact schedule for the nearest bus stop, plus a free transit starter pass; a bike map plus a discount at the closest bicycle shop; a walking tour of the neighborhood and the nearest downtown; a free pedometer. Basically, though the package differs from project to project, respondents receive whatever they think might help them chose any mode of transportation other than the single occupancy vehicle for any regular trip.

That information is delivered by a dedicated environmentalist on a bicycle and then, if desired, expanded on by a home visit from an area bus driver. A respondent can be individually marketed as many as 12 times through personal visits, telephone calls, thank you backpacks and water bottles, and letters. TravelSmart does not use email or computers in its marketing, or in before and after surveys, because, Brög says, the “personal touch” is key.

“We do everything for the good of the respondent,” Brög explains. “We ring back to 80, 90 percent and clarify every detail. We provide feedback. We say, ‘Great, thanks, but there’s one little thing missing.’ Then, we’ve started a relationship with that household. When that relationship exists, you can do things that you could never do in the beginning.”

With a stunning response around the world to the initial, pre-marketing survey – as much as 90 percent of, for example, 65,000 people in Western Europe – TravelSmart mines the initial data by getting some 10 percent of respondents to do a one-day travel diary and then gets another ten percent of those to agree to in-depth, face-to-face interviews. In this manner, researchers can compare actual alternative transportation experiences with area-wide perceptions and suggest, for example, what infrastructure improvements will give transportation planners the most bang for the buck.

The follow-up survey, in the same neighborhoods as the marketing — but not necessarily the same people as the initial survey or the marketed households — indicates that people who have changed their auto behavior become apostles for change. In some 250 projects over three continents, including four pilots in the United States and full-scale work in Portland and Vancouver, Travelsmart programs have averaged decreasing driving better then eight percent annually.

The cost, comparatively, is so negligible that the United Kingdom announced plans last fall for a nationwide project similar to TravelSmart at the equivalent cost of building 17 miles of interstate highway.

In Bellingham, Washington, Susan Horst at the Whatcom Council of Governments and Whatcom Transit Authority’s Maureen McCarthy have spent the past two years seeking funds to further their 2004 pilot and expand on “SmartTrips,” a travel demand management derivative of the original pilot. Bellingham’s pilot showed that 14 percent of the travel change moved into transit but McCarthy, WTA’s marketing manager, believes the more substantial profit was building a stronger sense of community.

“What about the benefit of seeing your neighbors when you walk to the stops and meet people on the bus? How do you measure that?” she asks. “You can, very easily, if you’re always attached to your car, carry around the wrong idea. It seems like all the folks who tried us found some way of saying that ‘It wasn’t as scary as I thought.’”

In spite of a $70,000 mobility study of Whatcom County, and an increase in WTA ridership of 27 percent last year, lawmakers have not found the funds to further individualized marketing.

“All the people we seek money from drive cars and whenever we talk to them, they think about what I call the ‘personal filter effect,’” Horst says. “But we hope to get TravelSmart on the city-wide scale because we’ve built a (transportation) system that we can’t afford to maintain and people are still trying to expand it. It takes a huge pot of money to fix potholes.

“At the same time, it’s really hard to ask your city purse-string holders to invest in a full-scale project that they’ve never heard of especially when they think that Global Warming and Peak Oil are someone else’s concerns.”

There’s more than one “Catch 22” in seeking funds for a marketing project which has no place to hang the sign, “Your tax dollars at work.” First, the decisions must be made locally to benefit primarily national and international problems, so local thinkers must try to get dollars from state and federal governments in an odd “earmark” from which the sponsoring politician receives no identifiable photo opportunity.

Secondly, as much as 35 percent of any travel change moves into muscle-powered transportation and carpooling also climbs significantly which decreases funding possibilities from transit companies. Finally, politicians, knowing that political leadership is often defined as “figuring out which way the parade is going and getting in front” can’t lead when the parade doesn’t form. And the parade can’t form until the politicians and media spread the word and individuals realize that “I” am part of the problem.

Again, Western Australia provides an answer.

Perth’s first pilot project snuck into the budget because politicians thought “TravelSmart” was a type of high-tech electronics – like better coordination between stop lights — which would instantly make all drivers, like themselves, happier. When the success became apparent, TravelSmart operators got politicians to sign the letters accompanying the delivery of the free backpacks and water bottles so that citizens began to see themselves as doing something good and being praised, and physically rewarded, for it by area politicians.

Today, all written contact comes from state and local politicians.

“We started out under a Liberal (the Republican equivalent) state government and for the past several years, it’s been Labor (or Democratic) so we’ve survived and grown through a change in governments,” explains Colin Ashton-Graham, who is leading TravelSmart’s migration into energy, water and recycling.

“Interestingly, the people give credit to the city, to the government, for the changes they’ve made. They don’t say, ‘I did it,’ even if that person is personally driving a lot less. They tell politicians, ‘What a wonderful thing you’ve done.’”

In the end, Western Australia is expanding TravelSmart as fast it can because, as Ker says, “it works” on all levels.

“People like it, so politically it’s good ‘no news,’” he says. “There’s no element of compulsion and for people who change their travel behavior, they get to feel better and to save money.

“I challenge you to find any other product that you can say that about.”

Randy Salzman is a former communications professor who researched travel demand management at Oxford and UVA's Darden Business School.

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