Blog: Carless Commuters

A few brave souls are going carless as part of getDowntown's Commuter Challenge. And so Concentrate has invited them to share their commuting experiences and offer up their thoughts on why Ann Arborites should consider alternative forms of transportation. Check the blog all week for their posts.

Post 4: Nancy Shore - The Commuter Challenge: What's the Point?

Nancy has been the getDowntown Program Director since 2007. She has an MSW in Community Organizing from the U-M.  She does her two-mile commute by bike, bus, and foot.

Sure, the Commuter Challenge sounds fun.  Sure, you could win a prize.  But is that the only reason we have the Commuter Challenge?  Of course not.  The bottom line is that we at getDowntown are trying to get people to change their behavior.  We're trying to get someone who is thinking about biking, walking, busing, carpooling etc. to actually do it.  That's the goal.  And that's the point.

We use the Commuter Challenge as a vehicle (pun intended) for changing behavior because it has several elements that actually compel people to act. 
First, the Challenge is time limited.  If we celebrated Halloween every single day, it wouldn't be as fun.  The fact that the Commuter Challenge only happens in May gives people a reason to break out of their normal habits. 

Second, the Challenge has prizes, but not big ones.  We are trying to give people the little incentive they need to consider trying a sustainable commute (say free ice cream or a gift card) but not enough incentive that the prize is the only reason they are participating.  This way, while someone might have started to carpool because of the potential for a prize, the residual benefits (cost savings, less stress, etc.) will often start to overshadow that initial perk.  And that's what we hope will happen.  If you just need a reason to pull your bike out of the garage, and the Challenge gives you that reason, and then you lose 10 pounds because you started commuting by bike, well that's fantastic! 

Third, the Challenge is a friendly competition.  And if you're like me, you like competition.  And if all of your co-workers are participating in the Challenge, but you haven't yet committed, their participation might just give you the boost you need to try it, too.

Fourth, the Challenge is all about people.  We've got Ambassadors who are out there promoting the Challenge to their friends and co-workers.  These Ambassadors are sharing their stories, they're blogging for us, and they're showing that lots of different people use a sustainable commute to get to work.  This helps us demonstrate that sustainable commuting is for everyone, from the architect who lives in South Lyon to the IT guy who lives downtown.  You can see all of our Ambassadors here.

Finally, the Challenge is a great way to change behavior because it gives you tons of feedback.  We've got stats for people who like to see how many calories they've burned.  We've got stats for people who want to see CO2 reduced.  We've got stats for total miles.  This kind of feedback is really compelling for people who can then see the actual difference their commuting behavior makes.

So does the Commuter Challenge actually change commuting behavior? Or is this just a chance for people who already walk and bike to work to pat themselves on the back? 

The first way to answer the success question is by looking at Commuter Challenge participants.  When people sign up to participate in the Commuter Challenge, they provide information about how they typically get to work.  This allows us to get a snapshot of commuting behavior of participants before the Challenge begins.  It also lets us see if the people who participate in the Challenge are just people who already do sustainable transportation or if they are people who are currently driving alone and could potentially try a sustainable commute for the first time.

In 2007, 869 participants and 75 organizations participated in the Commuter Challenge.  28% of Challenge participants said they typically drive alone.  That means that most of the people that year were already biking, busing, walking, etc. before the Challenge.

In 2008, 1,481 participants and 114 organizations participated in the Challenge.  And the percentage of participants who said they typically drive alone increased to 40%.  So that means that last year almost half of the people who participated in the Challenge were not already frequently doing a sustainable commute.  I see that as a sign of progress because the whole point is to try to get people who aren't already doing a sustainable commute to at least try one and see if it works for them.  We continue to try to promote the Commuter Challenge as an event that is not just for zealots, but for "newbies". 

Another way to judge the success of the Commuter Challenge is by looking at evaluation data.  After the May 2008 Commuter Challenge, the getDowntown Program surveyed Commuter Challenge participants to see if the Challenge actually changed their commuting behavior.  Of the 325 people who responded to the survey (out of 1,481 participants), 53% said the Commuter Challenge changed their commuting behavior in some way.  In addition, 24% of the survey respondents had rarely or never used sustainable transportation before the Commuter Challenge.  These are exciting stats for me because it shows that we are continuing to reach people who have never tried to bike, bus or walk before. 

I've also followed up with Commuter Challenge participants after the Challenge to see if these behavior changes have continued in subsequent months.  To read some of the Commuter Challenge Success stories, go to the getDowntown Blog.

To me, it's the stories that really show the importance of the Commuter Challenge.  There are people who participate in the Challenge and tell me that it changed their life.  There are people who participate in the Challenge and are now aware of all of the ways they can now get to work.  That's a significant accomplishment in my book.

But I'm not going to kid myself.  I know that there are other reasons why people choose to use (or not use) sustainable transportation.  The higher gas prices go, the easier my job will become.  When (and if) we get Commuter Rail here, that's also going to make a huge difference.  There are too many people right now that don't really have a good commuting option besides driving their cars.  The Commuter Challenge isn't going to change that.  However, the more people I can get to at least look at their options, the better hope we have of demonstrating that people care about sustainable transportation in our community.  And that's really important.

So what about the bigger picture?  In terms of the Commuter Challenge, I see this as one important tool in my toolbox.  The Challenge gives me insight into the importance of sustainable commuting for people in this area, especially among those knowledge worker types.  Organizations like Thomson Reuters and Google are huge participants in the Challenge. 
But it's not the only tool.  The Challenge is one way for me to get people to try something new.  And once people try it, they might find they actually like it.  It also serves as an advocacy tool.  If people are actually using a form of sustainable transportation they might understand why we need to improve it.  Without having people even ride the bus, how can we show them the value of making it better?

Beyond the Challenge, I hope to continue to engage local businesses in taking advantage of all of their transportation options.  I hope to continue to advocate for more and better options.  My job certainly doesn't end with the Commuter Challenge.  It's really just the beginning.