In late January, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) launched GO ITHACA, a pilot commuter benefits program that strives to incentivize Ithaca and county residents to limit their use of single-occupancy vehicles.
The free membership program provides education along with benefits and discounts for area transportation services to downtown Ithaca businesses, employees and residents, with the goals of helping those who drive alone find affordable, sustainable and efficient modes of transportation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, eliminating the need for additional parking garages and improving the ability to get around the downtown community.
GO ITHACA was founded in 2017 as a pilot Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Program, as Darlene Wilber, GO ITHACA outreach coordinator, explained.
In late 2016, the DIA secured a grant through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the Department of Transportation to establish a TDM program – a program that applies strategies and policies to reduce or shift travel demand – to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on city and county roads.
For over a year, GO ITHACA team members built the program, but the results weren’t as hoped. Wilber and others identified the structure of the program as a possible reason for the lackluster results, as it required participants to submit a considerable amount of data and only incentivized a few transportation alternatives.
“We decided to reformat to make it a little bit less work on [users], a little bit more fun for them,” Wilber said.
The redesigned GO ITHACA is now Ithaca’s first pilot Transportation Management Association (TMA), which uses TDM practices to accomplish similar reduction goals and is funded by the Climate Smart Community Grant Program, Title 15 of the Environmental Protection Fund through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
GO ITHACA collaborates with local employers and property owners, as well as the city of Ithaca, the county, Ithaca Careshare, Bike Walk Tompkins, TCAT and other area organizations to provide benefits for members who reduce their use of single-occupancy vehicles.
One of the main goals of GO ITHACA is to make people more aware of the many transportation options available in the city and the county, said GO ITHACA Program Manager Lauren Gabuzzi.
“People sometimes don’t fully understand how to use the resources that are currently available, and that’s really the whole point of this,” she said.
Membership is free, and benefits include enrollment and four rides home a year through Backup Ride Home, a service that provides backup transportation if planned transportation falls through; 40 TCAT single ride passes on any TCAT route; $50 Ithaca Carshare credit toward monthly or annual Carshare membership; and access to 511NY carpool services.
Members also receive discounts like 50% off a monthly TCAT bus pass, 75% off a monthly parking pass for registered carpools and 50% off four one-day parking passes.
The program also rewards those who make the switch with freebies such as movie tickets and ice cream along with special excursions and gatherings.Employees can register for GO ITHACA online at goithaca.org, where they fill out a short questionnaire about their daily commuting habits and can learn more about alternative options like bus routes, rideshares, carpools and bicycle rentals.
Members commit to reducing their use of single-occupancy vehicles by switching to one or multiple alternative modes at whatever level or speed they are comfortable with. That could mean anything from taking the bus instead of driving to work once a week to taking a bike everywhere.
Gary Ferguson, executive director for the DIA, which oversees GO ITHACA, said this method allows people to make changes at their own pace, which he and other members of the GO ITHACA team believe is a more effective way to change behavior than requiring larger, transformative commitments.
“We recognize that people want to do it that way, and we reward them for doing that,” Ferguson said. “A lot of baby steps add up to real savings for the community.”
GO ITHACA is also available to employers, who set goals with GO ITHACA staff, choose the benefits they’ll offer employees, use questionnaires to learn about employee commuter habits and receive quarterly reports on employee performance.
Gabuzzi said GO ITHACA is part of the goals set by Ithaca’s Green New Deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. GO ITHACA aims to address the problem through concentration on transportation, especially since a typical single passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to Tompkins County’s 2010 Community Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report.
“Eighty percent of the transportation emissions are from us, driving to work, getting around, so the city really wants to show their commitment to being green,” Gabuzzi said.
In addition to the environmental impact, Wilber said the program will have a positive effect on parking availability in the city, especially with upcoming changes.
“We have a parking garage that’s going to be coming down shortly,” Wilber said. “We wanted to be proactive in helping move those vehicles and other vehicles out of the downtown area to hopefully alleviate stress that may come from that situation.”
Sources cited improved traffic conditions as another large benefit of the program. Matt Yarrow, assistant general manager at TCAT, said a lot of traffic can slow down travel and TCAT buses, which is why he’s glad TCAT partners with and provides incentives through GO ITHACA to reduce cars on the road.
“It’s pretty essential that we look into reducing the demand on our road network,” Yarrow said. “And it’s essential for TCAT because we don’t want to have our buses bogged down in traffic. It slows down the service, it becomes more costly for us to operate, and it makes it less attractive for the riders.”
Yarrow said the program also helps to increase TCAT ridership and that revenue can help improve overall service.
Thomas Knipe, deputy director for economic development for the city of Ithaca, said GO ITHACA also helps facilitate development and growth downtown, which helps benefit the economy as a whole.
“We have a vision as a city to continue to attract mixed-use, high-density, walkable development in our downtown, and making sure that parking and transportation work for everyone is just really important to being able to achieve that vision and continue growing,” Knipe said.
Ferguson and others are optimistic about the program’s future and hope to see it last past the pilot stage. As time goes on, Wilber said GO ITHACA will adjust the program as needed to make it as effective as possible.
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