I’ve mentioned the organization before, but I’ve never officially written a piece about them, which is kind of shocking, as I’ve loved Smart Trips since very early in their history. Officially started in 2004 as a response to Knoxville’s non-attainment status for clean air, the group focused first on city and county employees and then spread to other local employers and to individual citizens. Kelley Segars, who many of you know, headed it initially.
The effort was mounted because Knoxville has unacceptably poor air quality by federal standards and federal funding was made available for this effort. We’ve improved, but we’re still on the federal watch list. There are likely a number of reasons for this problem. Notably, and often discussed is the fact that, as a valley, we tend to trap our air rather than sending it as readily along. We’ve also been noted in national press as having one of the worst urban sprawl issues in the country (#199 out of 221 most recently), rendering mass transit difficult and the automobile a virtual necessity.
Why target cars? Well, fifty percent of air pollution comes from on-road vehicles. And that’s the area where Knoxville could likely make the most improvement in our air most quickly. It turns out that nationally, an abysmal 76% of all commuters drive to work and home again by themselves in a car. In our area, according to US Census reports, that runs as high as 92%. so, while more of us could use mass-transit, walk and bike, even in our area, many, many more of us could could share a ride. That’s what I did when I joined in 2008. Our carpool won an award for a ridiculous number of people in a Prius: seven, if you counted the little commuters in the oven, which we did.
I met with Christi Wampler, a north Knoxville native who recently returned there, to talk about the current state of Smart Trips, what they have coming up and generally how we are doing. She started in June as the Smart Trips Coordinator and, along with Sara Martin, Outreach Coordinator, makes up the entire staff of the organization. While their salaries and the entire budget of smart trips has been funded through federal conservation and mitigation programs, the most recent highway funding act requires 20% matching funds.
Christi enthusiastically told me about the program and how she came to be a part of it. After earning a journalism degree from ETSU and working in that field briefly, she returned to Knoxville where she freelanced in social media management. She decided if a job was going to take her away from her family, she wanted the hours to be meaningful. Kelley told her about the opening with Smart Trips and she happily applied.
She noted that not only is Knoxville and the surrounding region under federal pressure to reduce pollutants, but so are some local agencies which receive federal funding, such as ORNL and Y12 which are expected to reduce greenhouse emissions 13% by 2020. Smart Trips works with these groups to meet their goals which, in turn, helps Smart Trips meet theirs. They’ve recently started a sponsorship program to help this effort.
The basic thrust of the program is to encourage commuters to walk, bike, telecommute, ride mass-transit or carpool to work each day in order to remove cars from the road. To do this they offer rewards such as gift cards to restaurants, issue challenges to generate competitions and newer ideas such as the “school pool” program they are piloting at Bearden Middle School, which attempts to help parents find car pools. The website actually offers this help to anyone who signs up, pairing them with people who live nearby and have similar schedules and routes.
Some of the resistance to car-pooling comes from people who worry about getting stranded. Sign up for the program and Smart Trips has you covered several ways. They will provide a taxi to pick up any of their registered users up to six times per year – if you get sick, for example, or suddenly your plans change. It’s pretty generous – if you suddenly become sick and have to go home more than six times a year, you really might need to see a doctor. Downtown commuters also are allotted five free parking spaces in downtown garages for any day that requires a registered user to bring in a car.
She pointed out that in the end, while it is about clean air, it also impacts every area of our lives. It saves money to use alternative transportation, biking and walking contribute to health. Few cars, she noted, also improve safety both for cars and for pedestrians. When talking about schools, particularly, she stated that fewer cars help keep children more safe as they walk to school. The safer it becomes to walk the more children and adults will do it, which enhances physical health.
Several events and new initiatives will be unveiled in coming months, such as a Prize Trolley on First Friday in October in which riders of the Trolley parked in front of the Emporium will be given prizes. A year-long commuter challenge is in the works and a Commuter Challenge Celebration is planned for Southern Depot on November 20th.
In short, it’s a great organization that needs your support. If you are already using sustainable commuting, sign up and log your commutes and get rewards. Your support helps them demonstrate improvement in the area and encourages others to get involved. If you find yourself alone in a car going to and returning from work each day, consider a change in behavior that will save you money, make you safer and enhance the quality of your life and that of your fellow citizens. Signing up only takes a few minutes. Why not do it now?