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Giving Transit a Nudge

A few months ago I noticed a sign in a Bank of America window advertising a cash rewards credit card with 3% cash back for gasoline.

The ad made me think: With rising seas, increasing carbon dioxide levels, and historically high levels of traffic deaths, is it really a good thing to be encouraging more fossil fuel consumption and driving with 3% credit card cash back rewards? Then, I took a deep breath, had a glass of water, and quickly forgot about it.

But a few days ago I saw another advertisement for a bank that was doing the same promotion – for both drivers and transit.

The promotion made me wonder whether little nudges for transit like this can make a difference. We already know that there are lots of small-scale financial and social benefits that are out there for drivers – a few weeks ago, my colleague Elizabeth described how a birthday party led her to think about how development patterns, bus ticket costs, driving costs, and free parking make it more convenient and cheaper to drive than to take the bus. Perhaps these benefits for drivers won’t go away any time soon. But in the meantime, maybe they could also be applied more equitably to also benefit transit users, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

In a few small ways, this is already beginning to happen:

Cash for clunkers... and for transit. The big federal cash for clunkers program during the Great Recession gave consumers cash only to spend on another (cleaner) car. But a new pilot program in California provides the option of cash for transit instead!

Hip advertising… for city buses. It’s hard to watch TV for more than a few minutes without getting bombarded with ads for cool, sexy, Matthew Mcconaughey-driven cars. This Danish TV campaign is aiming to give public transit some airtime too.

Commuter tax benefits... for everyone. Free or subsidized parking for employees isn’t just a common benefit most workers receive, but one that receives massive tax subsidies. While federal law allows for parallel benefits for transit commuters, many fewer employers offer them than offer free or subsidized parking. Lately, however, cities such as New York and San Francisco have taken steps to require more employers to offer transit benefits – leveling the playing field between transit and driving.

Timed traffic lights... for bikes and buses. By driving at the right speed, drivers in cities like L.A. and New York can hit a “green wave” of traffic lights, allowing for a nearly nonstop trip across town (traffic permitting, of course). But these timed lights don’t work for buses that have to stop to let passengers on and off, or for slower-moving bicyclists. But could they? The city of Copenhagen has started putting in place intelligent traffic lights designed specifically to speed up bus and bike commuters.

Our transportation system desperately needs an overhaul. But in the meantime, giving lots of little nudges to encourage transit, walking and biking can add up to make a big difference.