Every morning, David Twiggs gets up and drives from his home in Loudon County to the bus stop at Cedar Bluff, where he rides into work downtown.
“I read a chapter coming and a chapter going,” he says. It’s a pretty quiet ride every morning, he says. Some people sleep, some people chat, and Twiggs reads—partially so that he doesn’t get into a philosophical argument with any of his bus companions.
“I’m the only liberal who rides the bus,” he says.
Up until about five years ago—when gas prices started their steep incline—Twiggs was just like most other Knoxville-area commuters. He drove 30 minutes every morning by himself to get to work. In order to save money, Twiggs started using his car less and riding the bus more. And in the process, he started earning movie theater gift cards.
Earning perks like that wouldn’t be possible just by riding the bus every morning. Twiggs is cashing in on the rewards offered by a program called Smart Trips.
Knoxville has one of the worst rates of drive-alone commuters in the country—only the Youngstown, Ohio metro area, Wichita, Kan., Akron, Ohio, and Baton Rouge, La. have worse rates. A 2010 report from the Brookings Institution found that 85 percent of commuters here drive alone to work every day.
Enter Smart Trips: an organization aiming to change this statistic. But the group is facing a giant hurdle. The Brookings Institute report also showed that only .4 percent of Knoxville residents used public transportation to get to work every day.
Smart Trips coordinator Alisa Ashouri credits this to a total lack of knowledge and apprehension about the bus system among Knoxvillians.
“It’s like being afraid of flying for the first time. If you don’t know [about it], you’re scared,” Ashouri says.
Smart Trips is slowly making headway. The group is reaching out to partner with local businesses and offering bigger incentives to entice people to try something new during their morning commute this summer.
Smart Trips is run through the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which studies things like road use, air quality and public transportation to improve the general transportation climate in town. The program was started in 2005 by Kelley Segars, who coordinates the city’s bicycle program.
The idea of creating a system for people to log their journeys to work and earn rewards for “clean” commutes—that is, commuting via carpool, vanpool, bus, bike, or another alternative to one person driving him- or herself to work—came from Segars’ previous experience with a very similar program in Montana. While attending graduate school to study environmental science at the University of Montana, Segars got involved with Missoula in Motion. That program also offered a logging system and rewarded its users every quarter to using alternative methods of transportation.
“We’re pretty in line with them,” Segars said.
As of this week, 850 people are registered on Smart Trips, though only about 450 are active users who log at least 10 days of clean commutes every month. When users log 10 days of clean commutes in three months, they’re rewarded with $10 gift cards. Logging 60 days of alternative transportation use earns two gift cards. Each quarter, users who logged the minimum 10 commutes are entered to win gift cards with higher dollar values.
Sure, these rewards and prizes could be viewed as meager bribes, but the women who run Smart Trips see any reason for using alternative methods of transportation as a good reason, especially when the air quality in Knoxville is not known for being the best.
Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency released a list of cities that are not in attainment with the ozone standards the agency set in 2008, which included Knoxville. Lynne Liddington, the director of Knox County’s Air Quality Management department, says the area’s ridges and valleys tend to trap pollutants, and the hot summers here don’t allow for much washing-out of those toxins. She also says that most of the pollution in the Knoxville area comes from diesel emissions, which, for the most part, are released by diesel-fueled vehicles that pass through the city.
However, the news isn’t all that dismal. Knoxville’s air quality usually meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone and particulate matter in the air, Liddington says, and it’s only reached the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category once this year. Sensitive groups include the elderly, young children who play outside, people who work outside, asthmatics, and people with respiratory or cardiovascular problems.
For Glenn Richters, catching the 6:30 bus to downtown every morning is inevitable.
In December, Richters’ car died on a road trip to Chicago. When he got back to Knoxville, he never bothered replacing it and hasn’t looked back.
“I was looking for an excuse to use the bus,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of freedom when you stop using a vehicle. Using a vehicle causes tension whether you like it not [and] it’s not something you’re conscious of when you’re doing it.”
Sustainability-minded Richters says you don’t see the environmental impact you have just by using a gallon of gas to drive to Target for something you want. But the approximate calculations provided by Smart Trips, including calories burned, gas saved, money saved, and emissions produced, provide that info. Richters says he believes the numeric evidence Smart Trips provides its users can help persuade commuters to regularly use alternative transportation.
“You can actually get some metrics on what you’re accomplishing,” he says. “You can see what you’re actually doing.”
To spread the word about the program, Knoxville residents and local business have been recruited to join this year’s Commuter Challenge.
The prizes are pumped up during June and July for the eight-week event. Participants need only log eight commutes using an alternative method of transportation between June 1 and July 31 to be entered to win prizes such as iPads, Barnes and Noble Nooks, messenger bags, running or walking shoes, dinner at area restaurants, bike tune-ups, or the grand prize of $1,500 toward a vacation provided by AAA Travel East Tennessee.
In addition to individuals, 53 local businesses have signed up to participate. Based on company size, they will compete to get the largest number of employees to participate in the challenge. The winning businesses will receive a donation made on their behalf to charities they choose.
The Tomato Head is one of the businesses joining the push for cleaner commutes.
Michael Kuczmarski, the restaurant’s head of marketing, says most of its employees live close by, and many of them already consistently walk and bike to work.
Kuczmarski usually walks to a trolley stop at Fifth and Gay streets, which takes him the rest of the way in to work. His commute every morning is 20 minutes or less from his home in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood.
“It just doesn’t make any sense for me to drive to work five days a week and deal with parking,” he says.
But he only heard about Smart Trips this past winter and only started logging online for the commuter challenge this summer.
“In joining the Commuter Challenge, I’ll be interested to see if I log in every couple weeks,” he says.
Kuczmarski is hopeful that, in addition to more Tomato Head employees, others’ participation in this year’s Commuter Challenge will give Smart Trips an idea of how to draw more people in.
“I think the $20 is just not enough to motivate people,” he says.
But prizes aside, Kuczmarski believes Smart Trips really can help spur a change in the community, despite the percentage of Knoxville residents who currently drive alone to work every day.
“They’ve got a lot of work cut out for them,” Kuczmarski said, “but I think it’s a good idea.”
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