Cutting Car Reliance, One Trip at a Time

Seattle's In Motion helps individual neighborhoods trade car trips for alternative modes.

Image
Flickr user Oran Viriyincy

Carol Cooper rattles off the success stories without pause. The neighbors who lived three houses apart and worked together but had never carpooled. The car commuter who decided to bike into work once a week and now rides every day. The diabetic who started walking to the grocery store instead of driving, finally getting the exercise her doctor had been on her case about.

She's talking about the results of In Motion, a community-based program in King County, Washington, that nudges people away from driving alone toward alternative travel modes. Launched in 2004, the program targets individual neighborhoods in and around metro Seattle and Bellevue with a hyper-localized behavioral campaign. The goal of In Motion is modest but meaningful: residents pledge to swap two solo car trips a week for biking, walking, carpooling, or riding transit.

"Basically people start changing one little trip and then that opens their mind to thinking about additional trips," says Cooper, who manages In Motion for King County Metro Transit. "It's not always a sea change, it's one trip at a time."

The program first identifies a neighborhood ripe for mode-switching — often where transit service recently changed, or where highway projects (such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct) have interrupted travel flows. Using direct mail or social media outreach, In Motion then recruits potential participants in the area. The only prerequisite is car-ownership, which is required to ensure an actual shift away from vehicle trips.

In Motion piques participant interest with local incentives: fare passes, discounts on car-share memberships or bike shop purchases, special offers from neighborhood businesses for program participants, and so on. It also helps local residents understand the full extent of their trip options with a customized neighborhood multi-modal map. The idea behind the map, says Cooper, is to introduce participants to accessible transit and travel options they might not have known existed.

"The low-hanging fruit is the people who have never taken the time to find out what's around them," she says. "There's still a lot of those people out there."

A customized In Motion map for the Magnolia neighborhood of metro Seattle; bottom, a detail showing walking and biking circles. (Courtesy Metro Transit)

Participants make a mode-shift pledge and report back on the changes during their neighborhood's campaign, which typically lasts three or four months. To date In Motion claims success in 29 King County neighborhoods. Cooper says she sees a fairly consistent 20 percent reported drop in drive-alone travel (with figures slightly lower in low-density suburban neighborhoods), and very high intent to continue the new travel behavior.

In 2012, for instance, In Motion targeted two neighborhoods, West Seattle and Ballard/Crown Hill, set to be served by the county's new BRT-style RapidRide bus. Altogether, nearly 4,300 participants increased bus ridership nearly 12 percent. While an increase would be expected in any new service area, the program ensured that a considerable number of riders were converted drivers — shifting more than 38,600 trips that would have been made by car:

Transportation-demand management programs like In Motion aren't rare, but typically they emerge through employers. That approach fails to include metro area residents who don't work in offices big enough to offer transit incentives, and to capture the considerable share of daily trips that aren't commutes. By establishing a clear presence in specific neighborhoods, In Motion reaches a broader subset of the local population.

"There's a lot of different places recognizing that this whole concept of not just focused on employers but working with our residents is a big opportunity," says Cooper, citing a rise in similar programs across North America.

In Motion operates with funding from federal and state grants. That means it doesn't subtract from the transit agency's bottom line, though it also presents a challenge for other cities trying to emulate the program. Whatever funding source a city ultimately identifies, Cooper believes TDM programs are worth the cost because they leverage and enhance the transportation investments a metro area has already made.

"Our goal is to maximize the effectiveness of the infrastructure we have in place," she says. "The infrastructure is out there — we're trying to make sure it gets used."

Top image via Flickr user Oran Viriyincy.

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