A Smart Ride
The CommuteSmart ride-sharing program will pay you to carpool.
As gasoline prices edge upward, many drivers are rethinking their daily commute to work. What was once a lonely, expensive journey can be relieved thanks to CommuteSmart, a ride-sharing program created by the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) of Greater Birmingham in 1999. “At any given time there are probably three or four thousand people that are using the program in some form, whether it’s an occasional commute in or somebody riding the vanpool vans five days a week,” says Greg Wingo, public affairs officer for the RPC.
The CommuteSmart database currently lists approximately 15,000 commuters. A match-ride system is available to all who sign up, which pays incentives to participate. Anyone who enlists receives a dollar a day, up to $70, over a one-time 90-day period. After three months in CommuteSmart, those enrolled are then part of the Commuter Club and receive $25 gift cards quarterly that can be used at Publix, The Summit, Cahaba Cycles, Express Oil, CVS Pharmacy, or simply for purchasing gas.
Despite its 13-year existence, the cost-saving option still isn’t well known. “A rise in gas prices seems to be the time when the media seems to take the most interest in it,” explains Wingo. “We consistently advertise it and we have lots of people that are very aware of it but when your pocketbook is affected by gas it seems to increase interest.”
Taking vehicles off the road improves air quality through decreased carbon emissions, lessens the need for road repair, and lowers auto maintenance costs. Wingo estimates that 10.7 million commuter miles were saved in 2011 by area residents. “If you’re able to take your car off the road for five of the seven days out of the week, it stretches out the lifetime of that car,” he says. In addition, more than $3.5 million in commuter costs and $650,000 in fuel expenses were saved in the Birmingham area last year. “Within the way the program is set up, we can calculate the distance that somebody is commuting to and from work. We can look at the average commuter cost that somebody uses on vehicle upkeep.”
“The heart of the program is getting people out of single-occupancy commuting,” says Wingo. “Jefferson and Shelby Counties are the most active and the way it’s set up is that you have to either live or work in those two counties. For example, we have people who live in Jefferson County and work in Montgomery, riding in a van there everyday. The Department of Health moved one of their divisions there a couple of years ago. Many of the employees didn’t want to move to Montgomery. Those individuals have cut their commute cost by 90 percent. If you think about it from that standpoint, that’s a really big positive for an employer. They don’t have to go out and rehire or worry about requesting that their employees relocate. This program takes a lot of the financial burden off everybody. We also have people who commute to Tuscaloosa.”
Most are surprised at the financial incentive. “The forgotten piece is that we’ll pay couples who are already riding to work together everyday,” explains Wingo. “There are so many people that are already riding together and for us that’s great. We want to be able to track that. We want to be able to talk about those miles coming off the road. We don’t have to be car-dependent the way we are. There are options. We have people who ride their bike to work everyday. Those individuals typically are already going to do that. We don’t convince somebody to start riding a bike. But now they get something besides the exercise factor and the enjoyment—they get a little bit of money.”
For those interested in vanpooling, CommuteSmart provides the van (the participant pay-outs are not available to vanpoolers) and the commuters split the cost of fuel as well as a small maintenance fee. “If you live on the outskirts of Blount County and you work at UAB and you have a 45-minute commute, you’re going to be very willing to listen to those living near you who want to start a vanpool,” says Wingo.
Many people are reluctant to participate in carpooling due to emergency situations that might arise. “The biggest concern we receive is ‘What if something happens? What if I’m at work and I need to leave early or if the person I’m carpooling with gets sick and has to go home and I’m stuck?’ Well, we have an ‘emergency ride home’ program,” says Wingo. If some unforeseen problem occurs, CommuteSmart enrollees are reimbursed if they have to call a taxi or obtain a rental car (These options are limited to five uses per year). Wingo says that such options were used only 71 times in 2011.
The most difficult commute is no doubt the portion of Highway 280 that runs through Jefferson and Shelby Counties. Libby Carpenter lives in Eagle Point but works at The Bank of New York Mellon in downtown Birmingham, which requires a 13-mile commute on weekdays. She has been involved with CommuteSmart for two years.
“Highway 280 is awful!” Carpenter exclaims without hesitation. A friend told her about the carpooling program and its incentives and, considering the road she was forced to travel, she was quickly convinced to sign up. The relief of not having to drive daily has made life a little easier. “There are several benefits. The first is that I’m not driving that mess everyday,” Carpenter says, laughing. “And it is a mess. It’s a benefit for me just to be able to ride some days instead of driving behind the wheel of a car on 280,” she admits. “It’s a really good program. It made me think about doing something that I should have done a long time ago. I never heard of CommuteSmart until a couple of years ago. I’m saving gas and have companionship in the car, and every once in a while I get a little gift card. Everything about it is good!” &