Knoxville’s Smart Trips program wants you to, “Make every trip a smart trip.” What does that mean? It means reducing the number of single passenger car trips we make. That may be accomplished in a number of ways: walking, biking, car pooling, taking mass transit. But there are other ways which are possible in some cases: Working from home one day a week or more, working a four-day a week schedule and consolidating trips.
But why does this matter and what does Smart Trips have to do with it? I first wrote about Smart Trips in 2014 and went into greater detail there, but essentially, the program was started in Knoxville in 2004 because of our poor air quality, which may be traced to two things: topography (we live in a sort of bowl) and culture (we like to spread way out). Mix lots of necessary cars because of sprawl with a valley that tends to hold in air contaminants and you get numerous poor air quality days. We’ve made progress, but we could be much better.
I met recently for a follow-up with program coordinator Christi Wampler, who I’d interviewed for the previous article, to see what’s new with Smart Trips. She started by saying that lower gas prices have produced a reduction in the number of people focused on reducing trips. It seems that while many people may be motivated by a, relatively, abstract concept like air quality, they really tend to change behavior when their wallet is involved. Our cars do cost us – about $10,000 a year, according to AAA, but in the moment, $2 gasoline doesn’t seem like much of an obstacle to many people.
In an effort to expand the range of participants in their program and, thus, improve Knoxville’s air quality, the program has broadened its focus. Originally directed at work day commutes, the group is now including all commutes. Always focusing on having people log their green commutes and receive rewards for doing so, program participants can now log all green commutes – whether to work, play or to run errands.
Sometimes the work commute holds obstacles that other commutes may not hold. People have said they can’t commute because they also have to take children to school, or they live too far from others with the same destination to be able to carpool. Public transportation isn’t always available or realistic from their home to work. Biking to work might be too far or unsafe over roads with fast traffic without bike lanes.
But what about our other commutes? Is there a closer store we could choose? Could we run errands or buy groceries with a friend? Bike to do an errand rather than drive? We all make these decisions – but too often we don’t really give it much thought. Jumping in the car is simply too easy – and for the moment, it’s cheap. With a little thought, some our trips might be reduced, making better air quality for each of us.
Christi mentioned trips into downtown, which so many people in our region make. I know many of you bike in from nearby neighborhoods, but how many people know the greenways will take you from west Knoxville into downtown? She also pointed out that KAT buses have bike racks. What about loading the bikes on a bus and coming downtown that way? A family could leave the car at home on a pretty spring festival day, take the bus, but bring the bikes and have fun biking around downtown without the hassle of parking.
Signing up for Smart Trips not only gets rewards for the participants, it helps the program track and understand who is attempting green trips, how they are doing and what obstacles they may be facing. All this information in turn helps shape their approach and may inform city policy in ways that help improve public transportation and other supportive services.
Downtown dwellers have a bit of an easier time choosing green commutes. We can walk or bike to many destinations and often that’s easier for us than getting the car out of the garage. We can now take the trolley to buy groceries at Publix. The trolley also makes loops from downtown, so in bad weather or with Urban Girl or Urban Boy in tow, I’ll often take the trolley – which they see as a real treat. Smart Trips is encouraging downtown dwellers to consider reducing the numbers of cars they own. Many of us own two – is that necessary? Some downtown dwellers get by without a car. Though that might sound extreme in our area and it does take some planning, with new developments like Uber and Zipcar and our increasing density in the urban core, it’s easier than it has been in a long time.
The program receives funding through a CMAQ grant (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement) through the Federal Highway Administration and D.O.T. There are also local sponsors who contribute in-kind matches, including UT, Pellissippi and the Metropolitan Planning Commission. In addition to Christi, the program employs Ally Ketron as a half-time Outreach Coordinator.
The group also offers help with ride matching for one-time trips as well as regular commutes. Members may choose from Aubrey’s gift cards (also good at some related restaurants like Barley’s), Cafe 4, Tomato Head, Bliss, Mast, Three Rivers, Bliss, Regal and Panera for logging commutes and the programs includes not only Knoxville and Knox County, but six additional surrounding counties. Sign up today and try their handy app. I downloaded mine as I did this interview. Become a member, log your commutes, get involved, but mostly, think of ways to make your trips more green. We’ll have better air and less congestion for it.