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Can a Family Find One-Car Happiness?

Boulder, Ann Arbor lessons could help a Grand Vision goal

September 8, 2011 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Traverse City resident Sharon Flesher found it easy to maintain her bike-riding spirit while visiting the Netherlands.

Sharon Flesher learned a big lesson 11 years ago when she lived in a small Colorado town near Boulder: It’s possible for a family to live with only one car—or maybe even no car at all.

The longtime Traverse City resident says she was amazed at how convenient the bus system was for her family for getting in and out of Boulder. When the bus was full, she said, she rode her bicycle on an extensive bike trail system. Even walking across the street felt safe.

“The pedestrian crossings in Boulder were very, very well marked,” she recalls.

That combination of safe, walkable streets and an efficient and convenient public transit system proved to be more than just a novelty, however. One-car living helped the family save money for other priorities.

The idea of one car- or car-free living may be spreading in the six-county Grand Traverse region, too. In 2008, 15,000 locals worked on and eventually endorsed a future development plan for their communities resembling what Boulder has: “infrastructure that served bicyclists and pedestrians, and an increase in public transportation service in the region,” as a report by the citizen-based project, known as the Grand Vision, reported.

While Boulder and some other U.S. communities already live those principles every day, most transportation advocates in northwest Michigan acknowledge that the region surrounding Traverse City is just now beginning to offer more transportation options. In other words, the area still has a long way to go before the Fleshers and other local families can let go of at least one of their vehicles.

“This region has certainly made strides over the past year,” says Julie Clark, executive director of TART Trails, a trail building and pedestrian and bicycle advocacy group in Traverse City, “but we still find ourselves pushing for roads that are safe and convenient for all users, not just cars.”

Who Can Help?
Advocates like Ms. Clark say that, when it comes to creating less auto-dependent communities, it is critical for citizens to ask local government officials to take steps to support alternative forms of transportation. From well-marked and user-friendly crosswalks to transit incentive programs and parking management, communities can make walking, biking, and busing more convenient than driving a car.

There are a lot of steps that other local institutions can take to help out, too.

For example, at the University of Colorado, where Mrs. Flesher’s husband was completing a fellowship, affiliated staff and faculty of the university received free bus passes.This incentive and a convenient bus schedule made it even easier for Mr. Flesher to commute to work without a car. The bus routes were well used, so it was feasible for the commuter buses to come out to their neighborhood every hour.

It makes sense for a university to provide such incentives; after all, the fewer cars on campus, the less heavy the pricey burden of parking structures and valuable land dedicated to storing cars.

In Bolder, U of C is not the only one giving out bus passes; employers, neighborhoods, and other groups can get in on the deal too.

For example, when first starting out as a transit rider, the daily fare can seem a bit discouraging. But Go Boulder’s Neighborhood Eco (NECO) pass made it a little more doable. Together Boulder’s regional bus transit provider and GO Boulder developed a creative bus-pass program that offers a bulk rate. Neighborhoods can even go in together on a group of bus passes and earn a cheaper rate then each family could by buying passes individually.

Wanted: Better Promotion
Ms. Flesher said she’s encouraged by the movement she sees in northwest Lower Michigan to build a better transportation system. But she notices a cultural difference concerning transportation decisions between the two communities.

“Here, if you want to be a cyclist or a pedestrian, you have to want to do it,” she said. “The cultural aspect is less friendly. It takes a certain perseverance to not use a car in Traverse City.” 

Local transportation advocates believe that one key to changing that culture is education. They see our regionmaking strides in designing and building a community where one- or no-car living makes sense. But the disconnect is between the local transit system and how many people actually use it.

In other words, Traverse City does have an evolving, steadily improving bus system, but few people know much about it and even fewer people utilize it. If the public can be educated on how these options work and why it is important to use them, the reasoning goes, more people would take advantage of the community’s crosswalks, bike lanes, trails—and public transit.

One community that has combined broad business and municipal support for public transit with better promotion of it is Ann Arbor. Its getDowntown program, a collaboration between the City of Ann Arbor, the Downtown Development Authority, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, has just one mission.

“We were created to provide commuting programs and services to downtown Ann Arbor employees,” said Nancy Shore, getDowntown’s director.

But getDowntown uses many different tactics to fulfill that mission.

It provides online information for anyone who wants to commute by bus, walking, biking, or carpooling. It offers the Go!Pass for people who work in downtown Ann Arbor; the pass provides free busing on most routes and discounts on the others, as well as discounts at downtown stores and restaurants. The program has been overwhelmingly successful, with 500 participating businesses and about 2,500 regular passengerstaking about 52,700 rides a month.

Ms. Shore says Go!Pass is “one of our most successful programs because it gives the employee an easy incentive to use the bus. All they have to do is swipe their pass.”

When employees can choose to either ride the bus to work for free, or pay to drive and park their car, the choice is usually clear: they ride the bus. 

The program also looks very attractive to business owners, because of the high cost of downtown parking.

“The businesses have been extremely receptive,” according to Ms. Shore. “It’s one of the best deals in town right now, considering the fact that, if an employer wants toprovide parking, it’s $140 a month for a parking pass. The cost savings are significant. ”In contrast, a downtown businesses pays just $5 per employee per month for a Go!Pass. The program expenses are paid for through revenue generated from downtown parking.

GetDowntown also promotes transportation options by marketing its zipcar program, renting out bike lockers, and generally encouraging commuting by bike or bus transit with special commute-related events and contests. The program also organizes a “commuter club,” where employees can learn from other bike and transit commuters. The getDowntown staff will even visit a business and show employees how to use different transportation options.

Getting there in Traverse City
Local transportation advocates in northern Michigan say that Boulder’s and Ann Arbor’s successes could occur in this region as well. Every summer, TART Trails hosts Smart Commute Week, which has some local businesses encouraging their employees to bike, walk, or bus to work—and competing for a prize. 

Local advocates would like to see this become a yearlong program so that “smart commuting” becomes the rule, not the exception.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area Transportation Authority is trying to develop more convenient and reliable routes tailored specifically for commuters, not just people who have to take the bus because they have no other choice. Most who use the agency’s fixed-scheduled routes that connect downtown Traverse City to outlying villages say they are already reliable.

The City of Traverse City is also developing a Transportation Elements section of its Master Plan that details the future of transportation investment in the city. The document calls for a higher priority for pedestrian and cyclist safety when building new streets, and less emphasis on designing them mostly for automobiles.

Gary Howe, a local social entrepreneur and blogger at mywheelsareturning.com, wants to see more progress on transit options in the region.

“We need individuals and organizations, including government,” he says, “to pledge to reduce overall miles through re-prioritizing perceived needs, trip-chaining [running several errands in one trip], use of public transit and car-pooling that are all combined with more active transportation options like walking and riding a bicycle.

The idea is not to get rid of every car on the planet, he said, but to simply get to the point where we as a society think about using other options. Today, the only mode of transportation most people think about is hopping in the car. And even that, he said, can be done in a better, more interesting, and even healthier way.

“One thing I do when I choose to drive is what I call ‘parking between,’” he said. “If I have two destinations to visit, like the post office and the bank, I find a place in between and walk to both. I typically end up hitting places in between like a hot dog or falafel vendor.”

Mary O’Neil is a junior at Grand Valley State University, and interned with the Michigan Land Use Institute this summer. Reach her at oneilm@mail.gvsu.edu.

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