SmartCommute hopes to ease local pollution

SmartCommute Challenge promoters hope that they can entice commuters to leave the cars at home with an all-expenses-paid vacation.

The alternative-transit campaign--an annual public-awareness push to reduce traffic congestion in the Triangle area--is encouraging people to carpool, vanpool, bike, walk, take the bus or telework at least once before the six-week event ends Sept. 30.

In exchange, participants are offered discounts at a variety of area businesses and will be entered into drawings for various prizes-including a weeklong trip to the destination of their choice in the United States.

The Challenge is open to any resident who commutes to work or campus in Durham, Orange or Wake county. This is the first year the program has been opened to college students and employees.

"We are encouraging everyone in the area to try something new," said Julie Woosley, director for the SmartCommute Challenge. "The overall goal is to improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion."

University employees were encouraged to sign up through an on-site pledge drive outside the cafeteria at Duke University Hospital last Tuesday.

Cathy Reeve, director of parking and transportation, encouraged the University community to become involved in the campaign to save money, help improve air quality and avoid the headaches that come with daily commuting.

"Duke is part of a greater region, and we share in the issue," she said. "We have 22,000 parking spaces in the Medical Center and University. This is just our way of trying to do our part."

Campaign managers handed out pamphlets with details of the Triangle area's bus network, outlining its various routes and special fares such as daily and monthly passes.

They also promoted a new express bus that started running last month from Raleigh to DUH.

In addition to the incentives offered by the Challenge, participants found their own benefits in signing up for the event.

Gloria Cash, an employee with Environmental Services at DUH, said she was drawn to the financial perks of alternative fuel.

"With high gas prices it's hard to go back and forth," she said. "Everybody will be taking off a lot of money on gas and parking."

Woosley touted the lasting effects of the SmartCommute campaign.

"We did a survey after the campaign [last year], and at least a third of the folks were still using an alternative form of commuting at least twice a month," she said.

The SmartCommute Challenge was started six years ago in response to the Triangle being an area with consistently poor air quality, said Audra Foree, project manager of the Challenge.

It originated as a means to retain employees at RTP, some of whom were searching for work in other areas due to the drawbacks of traffic and lengthy commutes.

In 2005, the campaign expanded beyond RTP and involved 12,000 participants. So far this year, more than 7,500 people have joined and more than 100 employers are endorsing the Challenge, Woosley said.

"The fact that 12,000 people agreed to do this was pretty stunning," she said. "More than half, 64 percent, of people who participated last year were not regular commuters."

The Challenge further promotes public transportation by targeting advertising on the Triangle area's expansive bus system.

The Triangle Transit Authority will be providing free bus service to all riders in celebration of International Car Free Day Sept. 22.

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