SAN ANTONIO – As traffic returns to normal volumes, transportation experts are considering some new — and old — ideas to reduce congestion.
More people were trying carpooling, but then the pandemic hit.
Recent research shows incentives could play a key role in getting people back in the pool.
“I conceived at some point, and I’m not sure when the words came out, but that the deal had to be good enough for people to carpool that somehow, whatever the pieces of that puzzle would be, the deal had to be good enough,” said Paul Minett, a New Zealand-based researcher.
Over the years, Minett found that incentives like dedicated parking, high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and employer programs all helped move the needle.
In a study released last year, Minett and fellow researcher John Niles explored whether more direct incentives would make a difference. The study, conducted through the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University in California, found that payments of $15 per day would both entice commuters to carpool regularly and make a significant impact on reducing congestion.
“Interestingly … in our report you’ll see now one point is we aren’t paying the driver $15, we’re paying the passenger $15,” Minett said. “And that’s really, really, an important point is that our thing is about rewarding the passenger for what they give up and encouraging them.”
The study looked at the affluent Silicon Valley community of Half Moon Bay, so Minett said a lower monetary incentive could also make a difference, depending on the routes and type of potential commuters.
Local efforts stall
The pandemic took a big toll on local carpooling efforts.
The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization runs Alamo Commutes, which encourages people to use carpooling and other transportation methods to reduce congestion and pollution caused by transportation-related emissions.
“In 2019, we had a monthly high of carpool trips that was over 5,000 with our app in the area,” said Allie Blazosky, transportation planning program manager for the Alamo Area MPO. “And today we see much less than that, we’re about a thousand in the last month.”
Blazosky said the program offers contests for incentives like gift cards and discounts. Those who sign up can also take advantage of the emergency ride home program, which reimburses people who have taken an alternative commute to work and aren’t able to take that trip back. People must be signed up for Alamo Commutes and log trips in its app to be eligible.
Blazosky said the planned expansion of HOV lanes in the San Antonio could be a game-changer when it comes to getting more people to share rides.
“And we’re hoping that as HOV lanes become more connected, if you have to take a trip that involves a couple of highways and you can access an HOV lane with a carpool partner, that we will see more people excited to participate in that sort of commute mode,” she said.
In the meantime, the Mineta researchers said investing in programs like Alamo Commutes would be far less expensive and have more immediate impact on congestion than building new highways or adding more transit.
“I like places like San Antonio that haven’t yet gone all the way into what, Austin, Houston and Dallas are all doing, which is running very expensive rail systems on a per rider basis,” Niles said. “You know, maybe they can do something that’s truly 21st Century: take advantage of technology and apps and incentive systems and what we’re learning about the behavior of people.”
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