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  • Writer's pictureMolly Becker

Council to mull funding for incentives to increase transit use

Tuesday, July 9, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The Austin Transportation Department has delivered its findings to City Council on how the city could start small programs that would provide incentives to some riders of public transit. The report, which included 15 potential pilot programs, was given to Council members and other city staff last month, for consideration ahead of the upcoming negotiations on the next city budget.

Council would likely have to approve a budget amendment to fund one or more of the programs, with transportation staff hoping to have $1 million to create and implement the programs.

The report was a response to a resolution passed in December that said increasing traffic congestion and the cost of single-occupancy car use for Austin residents make it necessary for the city to find ways to increase use of mass transit services.

In a memo released last week, Austin Transportation director Robert Spillar highlighted six of the 15 programs, based in part on a small group of interviews with potential transit users on what type of incentives would be effective in motivating them to use mass transit more often.

The report was created by a working group that included several Austin departments and funding from the city’s Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge grant.

Among the more popular options was creating a “bundle” of discounts for different transit options so users would have flexibility in how they move around the city without a car.

That option scored higher than a suggestion to deliver incentives to transit users via a reduction or voucher in their Austin Energy bill, a recommendation some City Council members have strongly supported.

When questioned about downplaying the utility bill option at a Council mobility committee meeting last month, Spillar said that using the bill as a delivery mechanism is a possibility, but the question of how to allocate and route the money for incentives via Austin Energy complicates the issue.

Three of the top six recommendations involve transit mobility associations like Movability Austin, which works with businesses on programs that encourage daily commuters to use transit or decrease their car use. One of the options would be broader incentive programs targeting state and University of Texas employees who work in large complexes downtown but tend not to have access to Movability’s programs because of bureaucratic obstacles.

Another suggestion is to create satellite transit management associations connected to Movability, so specific areas such as the Domain would have groups and programs created specifically for the needs of workers in those areas.

At the meeting last month, Spillar also supported increased parking fees in central areas as a way to discourage car use.

“Not only can we think of incentives as carrots, but we can also think of incentives as sticks,” he said. “If we increase the cost of parking, then that serves as an incentive itself, though we don’t typically talk about negative incentives as incentives. That’s the stick side of the incentive.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said options that look at ways to “gamify” mass transit use – similar in some ways to airline frequent flyer programs – would seem to be more effective than those that rely on penalties and higher fees for car usage.

“Gamification is definitely a thing and the more we can think about how to use user interface design techniques, I think is going to be the cheapest possible way we can get a bang for our buck,” he said. “It’s like enforcement; we can teach people to do the right thing or spend all of our money on enforcement. This would be a little bit of both.”

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said the report’s findings that respondents in middle- and high-income brackets have a preference for the utility bill option show it could be an effective way to take frequent drivers off the road, and should remain a possibility for Council to discuss during budget talks.

“The goal of this resolution was to get anybody (using transit) and those income ranges have cars and are paying for parking. We’re trying to get anybody and everybody we can onto public transit,” she said. “To see it score high for those folks is telling. There are ways we can find the funding. I know Austin Energy sometimes doesn’t like doing little programs like this, but as we address these difficult challenges and incentivize people to get on public transit, we need to have the flexibility to try new things.”

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