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Encouraging People to Drive Less: EcoBucks at the Urban Ecology Center

by Jim McGinity

Do you know anyone who gets paid to ride their bike to work? Last October the Urban Ecology Center initiated an idea that has been brewing since last winter. How can we get people to drive less? Car pooling, mass transit, walking, and bike riding have been promoted for many years as ways to reduce pollution, unblock traffic jams, alleviate parking shortages, and diminish our dependence on foreign oil. So far, none of these concerns have receded to the point of disappearing. All of the proposed solutions are good ideas; why haven’t they caught on? We don’t know. But we realized that we don’t car pool, take the bus, or bike nearly as often as we could. In an effort to modify our own behavior, the Center has instituted the EcoBuck Program. Any time an employee gets to and from work without using additional fossil fuels, he or she gets a dollar. Biking, walking, and taking the bus all count. Car pooling counts half. We keep track of alternative transportation days on a calendar, and receive any earned EcoBucks monthly, added to our regular paychecks. The reasons for starting the program are varied. “We wanted to practice what we teach,” says Ken Leinbach, executive director. The overarching goal of the Center is to promote environmentally sound behavior. EcoBucks are an external motivation to consume less fossil fuel. Not driving also helps ease the demand on the limited parking spaces that are available near the Center. EcoBucks provide motivation to get more exercise. Traditionally, the workplace doesn’t value time not directly involved in work. “Biking or walking to work enhances the connection between mind, body, and spirit,” says Leinbach, “Healthier workers are happier. Happier workers are more productive.” The EcoBuck program has boosted staff camaraderie by creating a friendly competition. “For me the motivating factor is not the dollar, but being last among the staff,” says Darrell Smith, community program coordinator. “I live across the river and have only ridden my bike to work twice in the last year and a half. Since EcoBucks started I’ve ridden three times in two weeks.” The rest of the staff agrees. “It’s nice to be encouraged to do something I want to do any way. I spend less on gas and get more money at the end of the month,” says Tim Vargo, environmental educator. Susan Winans, environmental educator, doesn’t own a car and has always ridden the bus to work. “EcoBucks hasn’t changed my behavior, but it is nice to be reimbursed for part of my bus fare. Plus, it is enjoyable to be part of a group that makes it fun to drive less,” she said. According to Leinbach, “The EcoBuck program is a small investment for a significant return.” The idea of a work-sponsored program evolved from a long conversation as the staff drove across frozen Wisconsin returning from a conference last winter. How can we get people to drive less? The discussion ranged from creating corporate carpooling programs, to developing a citywide alternative currency paid for alternative transportation, to earning a free lunch. Active discussion of an incentive to travel in environmentally responsible ways hibernated for the summer and re-emerged in October as EcoBucks. In the first month of keeping records the Center staff got to work 66 times without using additional fossil fuels. In the second month, that number grew to 95.5 times. How can you get people to drive less? Could your company create a similar program? Could the city provide matching funds for less pollution, less congestion, less parking; instead of more freeways? Less is possible. Is your company or organization encouraging people to drive less? Let Riverwest Currents know about it by e-mailing
by Jim McGinity