Cities Use Cash To Encourage Carpooling

Washington D.C. has launched a pilot program to reduce road congestion and pollution: It is paying commuters $2 a day to carpool. It's based on programs in Atlanta, Los Angeles and other cities. The assumption is that after a few months of being paid, people will evolve into full-time carpoolers without a cash incentive.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Several big cities have introduced similar programs to reduce road congestion and pollution. You might call it cash for carpooling. Washington, D.C. is the latest city to try it. It is paying commuters $2 a day to share rides. The hope is that a small incentive can push people into new, long-term habits. Atlanta launched its pioneering program several years ago, and NPR's Asma Khalid visited to see how it's working there.

(Soundbite of car door shutting)

ASMA KHALID: Jessica Cherry and David Hoe(ph) try to make their commute as pain free as possible. Every day, they wrap up work by four. They try to beat afternoon rush. They take the shortcut home. But it still takes an hour to drive 18 miles.

Ms. JESSICA CHERRY: You're focused on sitting in traffic, and it's more stressful and frustrating.

KHALID: This is typical for Atlanta, a sprawling city with only a barebones metro system. Kevin Green is the director of the Clean Air Campaign. His group realized it wouldn't be easy to unclog roadways this congested.

Mr. KEVIN GREEN (Executive Director, Clean Air Campaign): So we decided we needed to get creative.

KHALID: Green's group launched the first cash for carpool program in the country, using mostly federal funds. Here's how it works. People log their commute online, and when the three-month program ends, they can receive up to $100. The hope is that people will continue carpooling even when the cash offer ends. Again, Kevin Green.

Mr. GREEN: It's been shown to be a short-term incentive that really drives long-term behavior changes.

KHALID: Since the program started in 2002, nearly 19,000 people have signed up, and most do continue carpooling.

(Soundbite of engine)

KHALID: Jessica Cherry and David Hoe don't get the three bucks a day that they did back in 2008 when they joined the carpool program.

Ms. CHERRY: You realize when you are carpooling that frequently how much money you're saving and what a relief it is not to drive everyday.

Mr. DAVID HOE: And we save money on gas, on mechanics, oil changes, maintenance.

KHALID: But both agree it's the non-financial benefits that keep them riding together.

Mr. HOE: Some days, you get into a conversation and it's like, oh, we're here already. Great. You know? It didn't seem that long.

Ms. CHERRY: Yeah, it's distracting. It's�

KHALID: What the carpool program did was get these two to shift their behavior.

Professor ROBERT FRANK (Economics, Cornell University): People want to keep on doing whatever they're doing. They've got their habits. They've got their routines. They don't want to break those.

KHALID: Robert Frank is a behavioral economist at Cornell University.

Prof. FRANK: If you can get them to switch their routines with a small payment, and often the payment's very small that's required to do that, then once they get in the new routine, they'll tend to stick with it even after the incentive that you provided is withdrawn.

KHALID: Not everyone's a fan of the program.

Mr. CLIFF WINSTON (Brookings Institution): Paying people to carpool, that seems perverse. The people who are contributing to congestion are the ones that should be paying a higher cost.

KHALID: That's Cliff Winston. He's a transportation economist with the Brookings Institution. He thinks the more traditional method of tolls works better than cash payments to reduce road congestion. Behavioral economist Robert Frank agrees. He says that people are, in fact, more motivated to save a dollar than gain a dollar.

Prof. FRANK: The problem with tolls, though, is that they're politically unpopular, so much better to offer a payment to get the desired result than to sit back and do nothing.

KHALID: That might explain why cities like L.A., Seattle and Birmingham have all introduced carpool incentive programs. Washington, D.C. launched its program last month. It's much more modest than Atlanta's, and officials are only aiming for 750 cars. A city official concedes the program will only make a tiny dent in D.C.'s traffic jams, but he hopes that it's a shift in the right direction.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.