Australian Program Shows a Way to Slash How Much We Drive

TravelSmart is proven and potent — and should be tried here in the United States

American transportation policy is fundamentally flawed: we spend too much on roads and highways and invest too little in mass transit and bikeable and walkable communities that could help to break our addiction to oil.

bus stop, Australia Photo by Flickr user JamesA bus stop in Sydney, Australia. TravelSmart was pioneered in Australia, a country with similar per-
capita car ownership to the United States and even more wide-open spaces.

In the United States we spend 80 percent of our transportation dollars on highways that, research indicates, induces new driving and more fuel consumption. One 2004 study concludes that the US (federal, state and local governments combined) subsidizes driving at the rate of $132 billion annually. Meanwhile, we spend about $39 billion for transit and virtually nothing for bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure.

But there’s a different and better way of doing things, a way to create jobs and protect the environment while turning America away from our massive oil dependency. It’s called TravelSmart and it has been shown to decrease vehicle miles traveled (or VMT in transportation wonk speak) by 12 to 15 percent, significantly reducing oil consumption. 

TravelSmart was pioneered in Australia, a country with similar per-capita car ownership to the United States and even more wide-open spaces. Some local governments there have been using TravelSmart for more than a decade. TravelSmart first got going in Perth, in Western Australia, under a conservative state government and then was expanded by the subsequent liberal administration. When the conservatives returned to power, they expanded TravelSmart methodology to decrease water and energy consumption and increase recycling.

Each TravelSmart project is different, but in general, the individualized educational programs provide whatever information and emotional support — like personal bicycle doctors or bus drivers to explain the schedule — to help any households change driving behavior. Here’s how TravelSmart has worked in Australia. After identifying schools, businesses or neighborhoods to target, outreach staff ask people one simple question: “Would you consider using alternative transportation for any trip?”  If the answer is “No,” people are never bothered again. But if the answer is “Yes” or “Maybe,” residents are offered a dozen or more possibilities for decreasing their driving that are tailored to the specific community or neighborhood. Critically, residents can chose whatever education materials they think will help them reduce any and all driving trips, not just the commute trip — the focus of virtually all American transportation demand management today. (You can find the incredibly detailed list of educational resources TravelSmart uses here.) The information residents request (bus schedules from the nearest stop, bike maps, discounted or free bus passes and bicycle repairs, contacts with others seeking carpools) is delivered within a couple days later by couriers on bicycles pulling trailers labeled TravelSmart. A day later, the household is called to ensure the requested information was indeed included in the “gift” packet which comes, often, in a colorful TravelSmart backpack or identified water bottle. 

A week or so later, the household is telephoned once more and asked whether the materials were helpful. In addition to seeking any additional information, the resident is offered the opportunity for a “bike doctor” or “transit consultant” to come to the home. The bike doctor will look at any cycles and explain needed repairs — again offering a discount to a local bike shop. The transit consultant arrives with a pedometer and walks the resident to the nearest bust or train stop, underling the calories burned in getting to and from. Once there, the consultant explains the schedule and will even ride with the homeowner on his or her first trip.

All written communication — and there can be as many as 12 written, phone, and face-to-face contacts — comes from a local or regional politician thanking the household for helping to decrease greenhouse emissions, congestion, and oil dependency while underlining that the household is saving money.

In Brisbane, Queensland, where the largest TravelSmart projects have been undertaken, the program costs about $75 per household. Data to date indicates that people who test alternative transportation become secure enough to abandon their cars for commute trips. The commute trip, TravelSmart founder Werner Brog notes, is the toughest for drivers to change because being late for work can lead to job loss; hence drivers rarely alter commute behavior until they time-test buses, carpooling, and bicycling on less crucial trips. Australian academics “metered” driving through GPS monitoring and discovered the driving decline was 18 percent, higher than TravelSmart had ever claimed through its survey research, several Australian suburbs declared a ban on road building.

TravelSmart is also credited with boosting the public’s demand for bike lanes and better transit over expensive highway and automobile infrastructure to the point that in 2010 Infrastructure Australia announced 55 percent of the country’s transportation dollars would be spent on transit and no federal money could be spent on roads unless it could be proven the new road would primarily carry freight.

Here in the United States, just one community —  Bellingham, WA — has embraced the TravelSmart model. In 2005 the community of about 100,000 people launched a program called Whatcom SmartTrips, which it continues to this day. Between 2007 and 2009, the program succeeded in boosting bus trips by close to 30 percent while also slightly increasing walking and bicycling.

Americans can, in short, be taught to get out from behind the steering wheel for the overall good of the society. All it takes is focus and hard work. If the Aussies can do it, why can’t we?


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