Getting Around

It's time to rethink the way we commute

A couple years ago I was working on a committee in Columbus, Ohio with a guy—the managing partner at his law firm—who showed up at every meeting wearing Spandex.

I thought he was a whack job. Sometimes, he smelled. But he always made important contributions, and I started to like him. So one day I teased, “Business casual at the firm today, Doug?”

Turns out, Doug commutes entirely by bike—to work, to meetings, to dinners with clients. “Our country gambled on the idea of the automobile—pouring millions into miles of highways, building four parking places for each car,” he told me. “But what if we made the wrong bet?” After gas prices spiked Doug added a new incentive at his firm: Green Bucks, an honor system where employees earn money for each day they bike, bus or carpool to work.

As the RTA begins its work, I’ve been thinking about how our region’s professional workforce—even highfalutin leaders like Doug—can learn to leave their car keys on the counter and grab their metro cards—or their spandex—instead.

I know we’ll never be Norway, where everyone from bartenders to barristers rides their bikes to work. But I believe that in it’s own way Madison can become a model for public transit for a region our size. Unless we love sitting in traffic, we need to think proactively about the issue. The Wisconsin Department of Administration predicts that Jefferson and Sauk counties will grow by at least thirty percent by 2035, and Dane will grow fifty percent. With increased population comes more cars. With more cars, more traffic ... you get the idea.

So here are four ideas to help Madison get its Doug on.

Make commuting turbo-convenient.

Mayor Jamie Lerner built the world’s best bus system in Curitaba, Brazil, through great design. Bill McKibben describes it in his book Deep Economy: “The buses ran in dedicated lanes and had doors that slid open like those on a train. Stoplights turned green for the buses whenever they approached. Passengers could get on and off quickly, and the buses knifed through traffic.” In Madison, approximately twenty percent of all automobile trips are made getting to and from work. So, a high quality, high-speed commuter bus system should be a primary focus for our future.

Incentivize public transit.

In many progressive pockets of the country, employers, developers and homeowners' associations offer free transit passes to employees and residents. Or like Doug, you could implement a Green Bucks program at your office to modestly reward employees who bus, bike or carpool.

Understand the investment ... and the payoff.

Mayor Lerner built the equivalent of a subway system at about ten percent of the cost. Cheap? Hell no! But a World Bank report says that cities that emphasize walking, cycling and public transport spend a far smaller percentage of their total wealth (four or five percent) on moving people around than car-oriented cities (which spend up to seventeen percent). My bus pass costs me less than $40 a month ... less than a tenth of the monthly lease on my car.

Increase the cost of parking.

The evidence is clear: the most effective way to increase workers’ interest in mass transit is to make parking more expensive. (Send hate mail to rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.) In cases where this isn’t an option, employers may consider cash-out programs, which give employees who do not drive the cash value of the parking spaces given free to employees who do. In Los Angeles, solo driving declined by seventeen percent across several employment sites that introduced parking cash-out.

Will Madison ever be car-free? I hope not. But for our kids and grandkids, I hope we can become a region where a car is an option, not an (expensive) necessity. Already, more of us take mass transit than the average U.S. citizen, and despite a fare hike in 2009, the Madison Metro bus system enjoyed its highest ridership since 1979.

Grab your metro card, grab your Spandex. Let’s get our game on!

Rebecca Ryan takes the #29 Sherman Flyer to and from work. It takes fifteen minutes door to door, less than a commute by car. Reach her at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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