Mode Shift: Getting Around Chicago More Sustainably

By Matt Baker

wabash_elIn 2009, according the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 120 million Americans commuted to work. Despite the rising cost of fuel, the vast majority of them—76%—drove alone. Only 5% took some sort of public transit and less than 1% traveled by bicycle.

Gas prices are only one reason that commuters should rethink those drive-alone trips, of course. In a report sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, the average single occupancy vehicle trip emits 0.96 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile. For bus and rail, conversely, average ridership emits less than half of that at 0.41 pounds. And when those buses and trains are at full capacity, emissions plummet to 0.13 pounds.

One group is working to reduce those emissions by changing our travel habits. Active Transportation Alliance, a non-profit, member-supported organization, advocates for reliable transit in Chicagoland, as well as safer options for pedestrians and cyclists. Their mission is to make these other modes of travel so safe and convenient that commuters will naturally shift from sedentary and environmentally harmful travel to clean, active travel.

Their most visible program is Bike the Drive, now in its 11th year. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Lake Shore Drive is closed to automobile traffic while up to 20,000 people enjoy a car-free day along the lakefront. The event is designed to show that there can be safe and reliable biking options.

Active Trans also pushes the wider use of bicycles with the Bike Commuter Challenge. For over 20 years, this program has been challenging Chicagoans to ride a bike to work for just one week. These commuters have been asked more recently to track their trips. Last year, nearly 7,000 riders took more than 16,000 trips for a total of more than 161,000 miles. “We wouldn’t still be doing the Bike Commuter Challenge after 22 years if it didn’t work,” said Brian Morrissey, Commuter Challenge Coordinator with Active Transportation Alliance. “Every year it’s grown.”

The program has evolved over the years and now commuters are encouraged to join a team at their company. “An employer is probably the biggest influencer of how a person gets to work,” said Morrissey. For example, if an organization offers free parking, or if they are headquartered in a location where it is difficult to get to other than driving, then employees are going to drive. If they are located in a dense urban area with transit and higher parking prices, driving rates plummet.

pedestriansTeam-focused challenges encourage higher participation as peer pressure gathers more and more employees into the teams. Suddenly, that guy who rides his bike to the office is a team leader, encouraging his colleagues to do it with him.

There are currently about 500 teams which compete against each other. Teams are categorized so that small companies can compete against each other or organizations with similar missions can be pitted against one another. After bike to work week, Active Trans awards the teams in various categories.

The latest endeavor from Active Trans is, which grew out of the Bike Commuter Challenge. The latter program is a week-long event, and there was a need to keep people engaged in sustainable commuting and not return to their old habits of driving alone.

In partnership with the Regional Transportation Authority, Active Trans created a program that not only encourages year-long alternative commuting, it incentivizes it. Participants self-report their daily travel methods, and the site awards points for transit, pedestrian, carpool, bicycle and even water taxi trips. They are then automatically enrolled in a series of monthly prize contests, depending on how many points they have accrued.

Past prizes have included Second City tickets, restaurant gift card to locations like Lincoln Park’s Bistrot Zinc, hotel and museum packages and tune-ups from local bike shops. “The site keeps track of all of this. You just have to push a few buttons,” said Morrissey. The intuitive user interface makes logging trips exceptionally easy. Participants can even save a route for repeated use. So if your regular commute is a walk to the train, the train to the city and a bus to your office, that route can be saved for easy input every day.

The prize packages benefit the businesses as well, as they get their logo and organization information on the site, and the partnership is mentioned across social media, emails and press releases. And for the prize winner, that one free visit may likely turn into a recurring relationship. “We’re hoping to attract more of that sort of in-kind support from local businesses that want to connect with our constituents,” said Morrissey.

Funded by a grant from the Department of Transportation’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality fund, has been live since last November. “We’re really looking to grow this summer with several higher profile events,” said Morrissey.

The Earth Day ride-share challenge, which begins April 8th and is now accepting teams, isdesigned to bring more members to the site during the year. This summer’s Bike Commuter Challenge, functions surrounding international car-free day in September and other events will hopefully keep the momentum going all year.

The website serves Active Trans staff as well. All that demographic data, points of origin and destination, method of travel and other data will help the organization going forward with its education and policy work.

Regionally, transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions are rising. In 2000, the Chicagoland area emitted 32.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide via transportation, not counting aviation. By 2005, that number had risen to 34 million metric tons. That’s nearly double the regional carbon dioxide output for industry, waste management, water treatment, agriculture and aviation combined.

bikethedrive_smThe only way to turn around this trend is education. Active Trans works to teach the public how to travel safely and responsibly with adult education events, school programs and cycling educational opportunities. There is generally a large educational component to events such as Bike the Drive as well.

But the organization also communicates the need for a strong alternative travel infrastructure to government agencies. “We have several world class transportation planners on staff that help communities and organizations … implement biking plans, pedestrian plans or integrated transportation plans,” said Morrissey.

Municipalities can hire the organization for planning projects, and Active Trans also actively solicits at the city, state and federal level for more pedestrian, biking and transit options, such as more trails, better sidewalks and protected bike lanes. Active Trans is also at forefront protecting ridership from fare hikes and service cuts.

Despite the rise in transportation-related emissions, Americans are becoming less dependent on their automobiles. An 18-34 year old is much less likely to have a driver’s license or own a car. Half the population lives in either rural areas or suburban sprawl where cars are the only viable mode of travel. But the trend is in the opposite direction, as cities grow larger and rural areas depopulate. Hopefully, the trend for more proactive, sustainable travel continues as well.

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