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Streetsblog.net Carrots Are Good for You, and So Are Sticks

7:42 AM PDT on September 1, 2009

A very interesting post today on the Streetsblog Network from getDowntown,
in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The getDowntown program, which aims to get more
people using alternative modes of transportation through a variety of
incentives and support systems, is a partnership between the Ann Arbor
Area Chamber of Commerce, the Ann Arbor Transportation
Authority, the City of Ann Arbor and the Downtown Development
Authority. It's been around since 1999.

In
this post, getDowntown's Nancy Shore steps back and asks a
philosophical question about the mixture of incentives and
disincentives -- carrots and sticks -- that are necessary to get people
to kick the car-commuting habit:

I’ve
been conducting a commuting audit for a local organization. Currently,
this organization offers free parking passes for all of their
employees. As a result, all of these employees park downtown.

Given the economic times, this organization is looking at ways
to cut costs, and providing $130/month for each employee for a parking
space is starting to look like a lot of money.

So that’s
where I come in. I’ve been chatting with each staff member and asking
them what other options might work for them. Pretty much every staff
member knows what his/her options are, from using the Park & Ride
Lots to biking to work to carpooling to telecommuting. And it’s clear
to me that if this organization stopped paying for parking, many of the
staff would use one of those other options rather than pay for parking
themselves.

Here is a case where a stick would work to
change behavior. We saw the same thing with gas prices. No one likes to
lose something, especially when it feels like a pay cut. And for some
staff it is just easier to park at a park and ride everyday and take
the bus to work than others. If that’s the case, should everyone get
the same stick, or only some people?

At the same time, the
getDowntown Program offers lots of carrots to try to get people to
change their commuting behavior. We have a huge carrot known as the
go!pass, that gives employees unlimited rides on the buses, including
to park and ride lots in addition to other incentives.  But those
carrots only work if there isn’t also a chocolate cupcake (such as
employer paid parking) on the plate.  In addition, our carrots are only
as effective as the bus service, or the bike lanes. If the buses don’t
run frequently enough or the bike lanes are poorly maintained, our
carrot becomes less and less appealing.

The reason I am
troubled by all of this is that people see sticks as bad. Our society
sees restrictions as bad. We are all about freedom of choice. I think
that’s why carrots are so appealing. But my carrot will only work if
there isn’t a better incentive out there.

We'd
like to hear about how other communities are handling the mixture of
incentives and disincentives. Any other creative solutions out there?

More from around the network: The Dirt looks at the economic value of parks. The Infrastructurist examines Portland's McMansion-style bridge proposal. And The Political Environment rips into Milwaukee's massive Zoo Interchange highway expansion project.

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