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Council approves Smart Trips program

Friday, April 21, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council on Thursday approved the second iteration of Smart Trips, an education and outreach program aimed at getting people in Central Austin out of their cars and onto sidewalks, bikes and buses.

The first iteration took place between April and July of last year, when the Austin Transportation Department teamed up with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to see whether offering to teach people in North Central Austin about alternatives to driving would get them to reduce their car use.

The project sent mailers to 12,600 households in an area bordered by 38th Street to the south, Koenig Lane to the north, MoPac to the west and I-35 to the east. The mailers asked them to fill out surveys about their transportation habits and to indicate whether they were interested in receiving a “toolkit” with a number of different resources and goodies, including bus maps, bike lights and sweatbands (to encourage walking).

Over 600 households responded to the solicitation, thus earning themselves a visit from an employee (arriving by foot, bike or transit) offering “additional encouragement” and information relating to transportation options, explained Lonny Stern of Capital Metro, who helped oversee the project.

The additional encouragement to explore non-car transportation continued via emails, newsletters and social media campaigns, added Stern in an interview with the Austin Monitor.

People were made aware of neighborhood walks and “transit adventures,” a concept championed by Capital Metro in which a group travels via public transit to a popular event, such as Sound & Cinema, Blues on the Green or Bubblepalooza. Stern said he tries to organize one per month, including an upcoming Earth Day event at Huston-Tillotson University on Saturday.

Both the city and Capital Metro chipped in $150,000 to conduct the Smart Trips program last year. That will also be the case in the coming years, according to the ordinance approved by Council.

Going forward, however, the program will be run by a contractor hired by the city, and Capital Metro will no longer be involved in managing it. Staff has already selected a vendor through a competitive bidding process and will present the contract for approval to Council at its next meeting on May 4. Details are not yet available publicly.

Officials who oversaw the program say the numbers suggest it was a great success. Those who participated reported an 8.8 percent decrease in car trips during the previous three days than at the beginning of the program. Most of that decrease was attributed to fewer reported car pooling trips; drive-alone trips only decreased 3.3 percent, short of the program’s goal of reducing such trips by more than 5 percent.

Reported transit use increased 5.9 percent and walking went up 2.6 percent. However, biking actually decreased by 1 percent, a change that Stern suggested may have been due to people being less likely to bike in the July heat.

Stern called the outcome “terrifically successful” in terms of participation and effect on behavior.

In terms of the cost, Stern noted that the $300,000-a-year price tag amounts to less than it costs to purchase a city bus. If Cap Metro and the city can develop best practices on how to increase transit use and then “take them to scale,” the return on investment will be enormous, he said.

It’s unclear what parts of the city the program will target next, but the goal is to focus on areas that have robust transportation options but low usage.

Speaking to Council members, Transportation Director Robert Spillar said that many people would like to get out of their cars but feel a deep sense of uncertainty and anxiety about using new types of transportation, notably public transit and bikes. The purpose of Smart Trips is to demystify them and show people that they need not be so reliant on their cars.

While the program is likely to focus on the urban core, where the transit network is most developed, Spillar noted that getting people in Central Austin to use their cars less benefits the entire city by reducing congestion and allowing faster commutes for those coming into town from outside the core.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she hoped that Smart Trips could help to boost Capital Metro’s upcoming overhaul of its bus routes, Connections 2025, which is aimed at dramatically increasing frequency of rides in some parts of the city.

Council Member Ora Houston voiced concerns about the price of the program and bemoaned what she described as the city’s focus on north-south transit, at the expense of those traveling east-west.

Council approved the measure 9-2, with only Houston and Council Member Ellen Troxclair opposed.

Photo by Adam Coppola Photography, Public Domain.

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