In response to the federal Clean Air Act, many local governments took only regulatory paths towards reducing drive alone commuting. The King County Metro of Seattle, Washington, approached the challenge differently: they took a risk. Confident that their transportation offered an efficient and affordable alternative to driving alone, they allocated a portion of their operating funds towards demand management.
The program relies on private employers as a conduit to their primary consumers, and uses that relationship by creating incentives (tax breaks and financial management partnerships) to drive demand for their service. For instance, under the FlexPass program an employer is charged for each employee who currently uses public transportation, but then anyone from the company is permitted to use the services for that year. This creates an incentive to try the program and inevitably results in a considerable increase in ridership. As the next year's bill for this increase is often more than an employer expects, the FlexPass program then graduates the increased charge over a three-year period.
Another way the program manages demand is the Home Free Guarantee that provides emergency rides home by taxi for employees who commute by any of King County's Metro programs. This service is in response to surveys consistently showing that the most significant barrier to public transportation is guaranteed transportation in an emergency.
For other commuters (carpooling, bicycling, walking, or telecommuting) the program offers Commuter Bonus Plus--a system of vouchers that are redeemable for services at participating service stations, AAA, a recreational co-op, and the local YMCA.
Beyond enabling the employer to provide a significant benefit to their employees, and a method of coming into compliance with the state's Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) law, the program also enables the employer to take advantage of significant tax breaks for monies spent on the program.
The program's innovation lies in its use of funds to create public--private partnerships to manage demand and increase ridership, and in its recognition of the different possible partners within the community. Services are catered to differing needs: free busing for students, staff, and faculty of the University of Washington; van service between station stops and company parking lots; and shuttle service for the Welfare-To-Work program.
The program has had a noteworthy impact on the area's transportation habits. The number of car trips taken to the University of Washington's Seattle campus has decreased by 10 percent over the last decade, despite an increase in enrollment of over 10 percent or almost 6,000 students. Since 1996, partnerships with local employers have also resulted in significant reductions: the number of Microsoft employees who use public transportation has doubled since 1996 and Weyerhaeuser has decreased drive-alone commuting by 23 percent. WRQ, a software firm, reports an unanticipated savings in that the FlexPass program costs them far less than the cost of acquiring the employee parking spaces it would have needed otherwise.
The program provides a promising solution for public transportation systems to address the difficulties in attracting ridership. The program's demand management model, as applied to transportation consumers, can be tailored to any region's requirements, from suburban to densely populated urban settings. Indeed, several transportation systems are already creating similar products, including Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver. Ultimately, it is the public-private partnership model based on demand management that will sustain the environmentally friendly, convenient, and cost-effective qualities of public transportation into the 21st century.