One Less Car in Seattle
By Bill Moore
Seattle, like Atlanta, has become the victim of its own success. Blessed with a temperate climate, lots of water and beautiful mountain vistas - as well as good-paying high-tech jobs from software programming to building jetliners - the metro Seattle area continues to attract thousands of new families every year, including their cars and trucks and minivans and sport utility vehicles.
The predictable result is traffic congestion and air pollution.
But if Seattle families discovered they no longer needed an automobile? Could they meet their transportation needs with one less vehicle, and in the process of helping reduce the impact of that car on their community, they'd also discover they saved a LOT of money?
Way To Go Seattle
David Allen - a former Solectria employee from the East Coast - and Randy Wiger both work for the City of Seattle in a program called "Way To Go Seattle", which encompasses a number of public education initiatives to help Seattle residents better understand and use the various transportation alternatives available to them beyond the personal automobile.
One of those initiatives is the "One Less Car Challenge." It's objective is to encourage families to park one of the family cars - or preferably sell it - and use other, less environmentally-harmful ways to get around, including walking, biking, transit bus, monorail and light rail, all of which are now options for many Seattlites, depending on where they live.
As a sidebar, Seattle is one of the first cities to place a large order for 235 GM Allison diesel-electric hybrid buses. It also recently approved a 14 mile expansion of its monorail system and it is developing a light-rail system which is slated for completion in 2009. The region also tied together by an express rail system.
According to Allen and Wiger, the Seattle metro area developed a comprehensive urban growth plan that essentially limits "sprawl" by drawing boundaries as to how far communities can spread out. New development must take place within the defined boundaries, which holds down commuting distances. They pointed out that total miles driven alone in their region has bucked the national trend by declining, rather than increasing.
Allen explained to EV World that the One Less Car Challenge now in effect originated in 2000 with a back-to-back trio of pilot studies that recruited families who voluntarily parked their second car for a number of weeks. In exchange for them keeping detailed logs of their modes of travel, the program paid them on average about $80 or roughly the equivalent cost to operate a motor vehicle every week.
Wiger pointed out that the purpose of the study was to seek to answer three key questions: could the average Seattle family live without their second car and still have the mobility they need? Will that reduce miles traveled as single occupant trips? And can they save money doing it?
The study was conducted in three rounds starting in 2000, then 2001 and in 2002. Recruited families had to live inside Seattle city limits and they couldn't own more cars than there were drivers in the household. As Wiger noted, giving up one car in a three car family where only two people drive wouldn't help answer the program's questions.
Allen and Wiger also wanted to variety of participants from households with children to singles to empty-nesters, They also wanted a variety of travel patterns from individuals who worked from home to people who commuted outside of Seattle.
Participants gave a different reasons why they wanted to take part in the program, the length of which varied from 6 weeks to 9 weeks depending on in which year of the demonstration they participated. Some wanted to set a good example for their children, Allen stated. Others wanted to reduce their own environmental footprint, while others wanted to save money.
One of the most important payoffs of the three year study was the volumes of data accumulated on family travel habits. Wiger explained that one of the selection criteria for program participation was the family's willingness and ability to keep detailed records and to faithfully transmit their logs every week.
In the first year (2000), the program was a total of eight weeks in length. For the first two weeks, families kept detailed logs of their travels, including their second car, which was then parked for the last six weeks of the study. In year two (2001), the study was 9 weeks long, with three weeks of 'baseline' data collecting, including the extra car, and six weeks without the car. In the third and final year (2002), the study was lengthened to 12 weeks; 3 weeks of baseline data collection and nine with the second car parked. The odometer readings on all the parked cars were recorded at the start of the non-driving period and verified throughout the study period.
Allen added that in the third year, the data collection stipend was adjusted to more closely match each family's actual operating costs for their second vehicle. Although the overall average still worked out to be $80 a week, some families received more, some less depending on their particular driving habits. Allen told me that this proved an especially powerful incentive for many.
He shared one of the many anecdotes to come out of the study. One family told him that they'd always assumed that in America, you had to own an automobile, but that after having taken part in the study, they had come to realize that wasn't true; and receiving a check for $72 every week during the study only re-enforced that notion.
Saving Money While Still Getting Around
Other studies, Wiger explained, show that it costs, on average, $4,200 annually to operate a second car. By contrast, if you sold that second car and used alternatives like buses and biking, you'd spend only $1,300 annually.
In the Seattle "One Less Car" study, Allen and Wiger found that the net savings was about $70 a week; the participants spent $10 a week on alternative travel modes, while getting the $80 stipend, which simulated their second car costs.
One of the most significant findings of the study was that although vehicle-miles-traveled decreased during the study period, the actual number of miles traveled remained essentially the same for each family. By the end of the study, they had found alternative ways to meet their pre-study mobility needs without the use of the second car.
"They traveled about the same amount," Allen said, "thought they drove their car a lot less. That was one of the big lessons of the study is that with one less car you can still get where you need to go and do what you need to do, but you can get around by doing more walking and biking and busing."
A total of 86 families took part in the initial three rounds of the study. Twenty percent of those sold their second car, and in a couple cases, sold all their cars. A follow-up survey conducted six months later of participants in the 2001 and 2002 studies indicated that more than 80 percent had reduced their second car usage.
Allen told me that the three year study concluded that lots of different types of families in Seattle could, in fact, learn to live without a second car,. Based on these findings, the study evolved into the current "One Less Car Challenge", which while it no longer offers weekly stipends, does offer a number of incentives, including discounts through the local bike club and on membership in Seattle's Flexcar car-sharing program.
Wiger stressed that biggest incentive to participating in the Challenge is the savings of not operating or owning that second vehicle. The participants also enjoy getting more exercise and experiencing less stress. And the new program doesn't cost the city anything.
Sixty families have signed up for the Challenge, which is initially one month in duration, and they can volunteer for a second month. Of those, twenty five families have sold their second car.
Family Communications and Scheduling
Households that took part in the original study and now in the Challenge quickly discovered that planning and communications were vital to adapting to life without that second car. Some held weekly meetings to schedule car use, Allen remarked. By the end of the study, everyone had adjusted to the situation.
Wiger seconded this observation before having to leave for another appointment, adding that the second biggest complaint was more of a wish for more frequent and better public transit. Allen said that the recent arrival of Flexcar, which has more than 100 brand new vehicles placed conveniently in various Seattle neighborhoods, has also helped mitigate some of the pain of doing without that second car. If a member needs a car occasionally, Flexcar can provide on on a short-term basis. Challenge participants get 50 hours of Flexcar use for taking part in the one-month program.
He also recounted a list of benefits collected as personal anecdotes from One Less Car families who discover they are walking and biking more, and as a result, are becoming more attuned to their local neighborhoods and community, as well as feeling better. Husbands are less stressed by riding the bus and are finally getting to read books they always wanted to read. Mothers are walking with their children to the local store, meeting neighbors along the way, instead of siting stuck in traffic while driving to the "Big Box Store" to save a few pennies on an item or two.
Obviously, the key to the success of a One Less Car program is the availability of transportation alternatives like buses that can haul bicycles and light rail that ties together critical community infrastructure and car sharing programs. Without these, it will be harder to convince families to sell that second car, which Allen readily acknowledged.
He told me that one of the terms of the third federal grant for the 2002 study was the creation of model guidelines so that the program could be replicated in other communities. While there has been interest expressed in the One Less Car program, to date, Seattle is the only community to implement it.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This write-up is a summation of a 32-minute telephone conversation. For more detailed information about the One Less Car study and Challenge, be sure to listen to the MP3 audio of our complete discussion.