Transit Incentives

A bus stop in Danby. 

With the Green Street Garage reconstruction project looming and the redevelopment of the Seneca Street Garage planned for the near future, parking space availability will be limited for drivers looking to come downtown. This comes at an especially inopportune time, as the downtown development boom is supposed to help not only people living in Ithaca, but also those who drive into the city from the outskirts of Tompkins County. 

In order to combat this problem, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) has been working on a transportation management association (TMA) program called GO Ithaca, a program designed to get more people to use public transportation when traveling to and from downtown Ithaca. The program is being organized in association with Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT).

This is the second time the DIA is attempting a transit incentives program. Much of the feedback from that pilot program was that people wanted to have access to multiple types of transportation. GO Ithaca is designed to get people out of their cars, though it can be a difficult adjustment for people to go from driving five days a week to taking the bus, according to Lauren Gabuzzi, the program manager of GO Ithaca. To soften the adjustment, Gabuzzi said even just signing up for the program opens the door for several different transportation alternatives.  

“When you register, you sign a little pledge saying you are going to work towards reducing the amount of times you will drive alone a week,” Gabuzzi said. “Then you get a 40-ride TCAT card, a $50 credit towards Ithaca CarShare, and a year membership to Back-Up Ride Home. [Back-Up Ride Home] is basically for if you’re carpooling, riding the bus, anything but driving alone and something happens or an emergency comes up. You have to pick up your son from school, the carpool car breaks down; you will get a free ride home, up to four times a year at $70 a ride.” 

The program also provides coaching for those who are skittish about the transition. Gabuzzi said she will be working with people to assess their current commute, the economics of that commute and how it can be easier for them through public transportation. Along with this, people will be eligible for several monthly discounts such as 50 percent off a monthly TCAT card, 75 percent off carpooling (which would be a parking pass for one of the downtown parking garages), and for those who absolutely have to drive alone, 50 percent off parking at one of the downtown garages. In addition to these discounts, there will also be numerous informal events promoting public transportation, such as happy hour at The Bike Bar. Gabuzzi’s looked across the country for strategies to making the program appeal to the public. 

“I went down [to Austin, Texas] in the summer and they had a bar bus hop,” Gabuzzi said of the city’s Smart Trips Austin program. “You get on the bus, you get a free bus pass and you get led around the city going to different bars. We might try and do something like that. There are endless possibilities.” 

Obviously, the issue is inextricably linked to efforts to fight climate change as well. Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, noted that transportation reform is a key part of Ithaca’s Green New Deal. He said that transportation emissions are probably some of the largest contributors to CO2 emissions, which GO Ithaca could reduce significantly. Plus, he said, considering it costs $35,000 per space to develop a parking garage, it would be cheaper to run this kind of program than build a fourth downtown parking garage. 

One of the inherent problems of public transportation in Ithaca and Tompkins County has been summed up in four words by local political figures, members of the DIA and Tompkins CAT officials - first mile, last mile. People living in outlying areas of Tompkins County such as Dryden, Freeville, Groton, Newfield, Enfiled, Trumansburg, etc. are in transit deserts, often complaining of insufficient and inconsistent bus routes and not wanting to rely on public transportation. 

With limited options for transportation in and out of downtown to those areas, it can be hard to get residents of those towns and villages to consider public transportation as opposed to their cars. However, a new pilot program will be able to make them part of the DIA’s program, TConnect.

Matt Yarrow, TCAT’s assistant general manager, said TConnect has been in the works for the last two years, but with funding from a NYSERDA grant, this program is finally coming to fruition. Since TCAT has had a great deal of difficulty getting high levels of service to sparsely populated sections of the county, it’s expensive for them to run their 40 ft. buses on every single road in the county. This would leave plenty of residents either unserved or underserved by public transit. 

“The idea with this project is, can we increase our service area by providing that first mile, last mile connection to a TCAT route,” Yarrow said. “We’ve looked around the country, we’ve analyzed the demographics, we looked at the service TCAT was already providing in areas outside the Ithaca urbanized areas, and it looked like Dryden would be a good place to run a  pilot. The population of the village and surrounding areas is enough where it could sustain a service like this. We have quite a few trips on our Route 43, which is the main weekday route that services Dryden.”

People would be able to request a ride via an app that will be available for Android and iOS operating systems. You could also use a web browser or call in a ride as well for those who may not have access to smart devices. The app will allow people to input where they live and what TCAT trip they are looking to take. Users will be able to see the location of the TCAT bus and that of the TConnect vehicle. 

“They will be fit into an electronic manifest that can kind of adjust itself on the fly as other people request rides,” Yarrow said. “If we get to the point where there’s a high demand for this, if that bus cannot do that first mile, last mile trip in the alloted time, then you will be encouraged to look at the next trip. We are starting out with a single Gadabout vehicle and driver that will be providing the first mile, last mile service. What we’ve done is structure this project in two phases. Phase A will be that one bus and driver that’s connecting with TCAT Route 43. Phase B  will be based on the lessons learned from Phase A.”

Yarrow is hoping Phase A’s success will generate an appetite for expanding TConnect beyond the Dryden area. Three meetings will be held in Dryden by TCAT to gather public feedback and other comments regarding how the service has worked for passengers.Some challenges for this program is being able to create something new that works for the county. 

Making his program operational by April is proving to be a bit of a challenge, though they remain determined in their efforts to make TConnect a success. At this time, it is unknown if TCAT will continue using Gadabout buses for this program or if they will have their own equipment. For now, Yarrow said sticking with Gadabout is their best option to make the program cost friendly. 

“What working with Gadabout allows us to do is to try to determine if this can be a low-cost option for providing this kind of service,” Yarrow said. “Since Gadabout already has vehicles that are appropriate and already has drivers that are trained to do something like this. If it is a success, TCAT would look at that but I really don’t know what direction we would be headed. This entire project with NYSERDA is two years long so we’re still at the beginning of it. We have a lot of work to do to prove it to ourselves and the community before we would take this on as a permanent thing.”

Ferguson has recognized that for some, incentives for public transportation will work, but for others it won’t. During the DIA’s original program, they encouraged people to use public transportation heavily while acknowledging, cars are sometimes a necessity for getting around. Gabuzzi said some cities like Ithaca have been designed to operate better for cars than for public transportation.

“The whole premise of sources of transportation demand management program is to incentivize the infrastructure that's already in place,” Gabuzzi said. “The car has a lot of advantages right now in terms of how some cities were set up and parking lots that are so easily accessible in some areas, but when people develop that habit, they don't really think about the other modes that are already there. So, the TDM is just really trying to bring attention to those up to the level of the car. Another exciting thing is that this is also a pilot TMA, which is a transportation management association, so that basically means we’re working with local businesses and organizations to have a sustainable long term program.” 

Most of the challenges with the program is that the DIA is developing a program from scratch, due partially to the numerous discounts being offered. Darlene Donahue Wilber, outreach coordinator for GO Ithaca and communications manager of the DIA, said employers and employees could benefit equally.

“We’re hoping this will help them with maybe retaining their employees,” Donohue Wilber said. “Some employees may have a challenge getting to work because their car broke down or whatever. They don't they don't know about the alternatives that are available to them. If their employer is providing this program to them, they can make them more aware of their options as well.” 

While this program focuses on downtown Ithaca, Gabuzzi, Ferguson and Donahue see this program’s eligibility for expansion to other parts of the community. Numerous community agencies such as TCAT, Bike Walk Tompkins, the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County Government, Ithaca CarShare, the Center for Community Transportation and 511 New York are partners in this program. Some of the communities Gabuzzi and Donahue looked at to model the program after were Buffalo, NY; Austin, TX; Boulder, CO; and Cornell. Ithaca is setting a standard due in part to the fact that it's the first small city in New York State to create this kind of a program. 

“Most of these programs are in bigger cities where there's a lot more resources, big organizations and big corporations,” Ferguson said. “It's just a whole different dynamic. In a smaller community like ours that makes life easy in some respects, it also makes life more difficult because our resource base is just not the same. When we try to do a lot of the same things that bigger cities are doing, but without the money, that's when we got to get creative. Part of what we’re trying to do here is model to the state and everyone else how you can do this in a smaller community.”

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