Every spring and summer, many Michiganders give up their traditional, single-occupancy vehicle commute and give another, more sustainable, mode of transportation a try – it’s called Smart Commute. Organizations throughout the state host Smart Commute programs in their communities to motivate residents to alter their everyday travel routines and reap the benefits that choosing to bike, walk, utilize public transit, carpool or telecommute bring. Smart Commute programs generally occur during different weeks for each community, and each program is hosted by different organizations from that city. Many programs include special events and contests between participating organizations with prizes for the group that logs the highest percentage of Smart Commute participants.
While many Michigan Smart Commute programs have already taken place in Michigan this year, the Lansing Smart Commute is going on now (June 9-22) and Jackson’s Smart Commute continues throughout the whole summer. Click here for a full list of Smart Commute programs across the state.
Why Smart Commute?
Biking, walking, taking public transit, carpooling and telecommuting are all ways to reduce your carbon footprint, increase physical activity and experience a new perspective on transportation in your community. On top of those benefits, Smart Commute events and inter-office challenges are also a great opportunity to network and have fun. In order to learn more about various Smart Commute programs, we spoke with Smart Commute program participants from Jackson, East Lansing and Traverse City and asked them about their experiences, challenges and how their participation has changed their outlook on sustainable transportation.
The Jackson Smart Commute
To get more details about the Jackson Smart Commute we first spoke with Scott TenBrink, Executive Director of the Fitness Council of Jackson, a Trans4M supporting partner and host of Jackson’s Smart Commute program. While many Michigan Smart Commute programs are successful and enjoyable, this unique program encourages residents to participate multiple times throughout the summer and hopefully, engage in sustainable transportation options beyond event days, explained TenBrink. In Jackson, every third Friday of the month from May through August is a Smart Commute day
Aside from planning creative monthly community-wide events such as June’s Paddle to Work day and Downtown Dog Walk, the Fitness Council provides all participants with green Smart Commute t-shirts which can be seen all around Jackson to spread awareness and serve as a free bus pass on Smart Commute days.
We also spoke with Erica McNair, a resident of Jackson who works at Toy House & Baby Too, about her experience with the Jackson Smart Commute. McNair takes part in Jackson’s Smart Commute Program every year and has a lot of positive things to say about the unique program. For at least one day a month in the summer, McNair exchanges her car keys for walking shoes and enjoys a one mile walk from her home to the store where she works. She enjoys taking various routes to work on Smart Commute days and loves to walk downtown and see all of the walkers and bikers participating throughout the community.
Erica explained that taking part in the Smart Commute and attending Smart Commute events gives her a chance to network with other residents and business owners, while spending more time out and about. Her biggest challenge is the weather, “I don’t like coming to work with wet clothes or shoes,” she explained. When we asked if she had any further comments about her experience, she said, “I like how [the Smart Commute program in Jackson] has evolved – It has encouraged people to use a smart commute for more than just work, such as running errands and going to lunch… It’s a neat group and a great feeling to be involved in something like this.” Jackson’s Smart Commute program seems to be a great opportunity to be active and meet people and will surely continue to thrive in this community.
Greater Lansing Smart Commute
A participant in the Greater Lansing Smart Commute program, organized by Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council (Mid-MEAC), Mike Unsworth, spoke to us about his experiences as a long-time smart commuter. Mike is a librarian at Michigan State University Libraries and has been bicycling to and from work since 1970, “It was a good object lesson to live close to where you work. I’ve done it ever since (the energy crisis)- part of that is planning, and part of that is luck,” he explained. When asked why he likes to bike to work he said, “My brain works better when I exercise and breathe in the clear air. (Biking) makes you more aware of your surroundings, especially on the in-urban pathways.” It comes as no surprise that he has been organizing Michigan State Libraries’ Smart Commute program for almost 10 years. Mike makes his five mile commute on the in-urban pathways through the Meridian Township trails which takes him about 20 minutes. Mike also utilizes the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) bus system on occasion.
Since Mike has been biking around Lansing for so long, he has noticed changes in the city’s infrastructure during recent years. He notes that since Complete Streets Policies have been enacted in Lansing and surrounding areas, people have felt more safe riding their bikes, which is one of the most important factors that go into the decision of whether or not to bike where they need to go. With the addition of bike lanes on roads and bike racks at office buildings, along with other accommodations for bikers, there will be an increase in people that are willing to ride to get to work, school and everywhere in between. “It’s not an overnight process,” Mike says, “but it is happening.”
Aside from organizing his own Smart Commute team every year, Mike also teaches bike commuting classes on the Michigan State University campus and in the Lansing Community which focus on reasons to commute via bicycle, selecting and using equipment appropriately along with route planning techniques and organizes bicycle architecture tours in East Lansing. Mike’s story gives us a great example of how smart commuting year round is viable and can also be beneficial and fun.
Traverse City Smart Commute
For our final interview, we spoke with Lisa Kohler who works in downtown Traverse City and participates in their yearly Smart Commute program organized by TART Trails, Inc. Lisa’s usual trip to work consists of a four mile drive, although during Smart Commute week and frequently during the spring, summer and fall, she bikes the four mile commute. “[Biking] is a great way to start my day and it only takes a few minutes more and saves money,” Lisa explained.
Lisa explained that the Traverse City Smart Commute is great because so many businesses participate and support the program. Also, the activities that TART Trails organizes, such as wonderful breakfast stops, are a great bonus. One of Lisa’s most memorable experiences during Smart Commute week was this year when she got together with 13 of her co-workers to rent the TC Cycle Pub to attend the Smart Commute awards ceremony and breakfast. She explained that her company is very involved with the program and offers additional company-wide competitions and prizes to encourage more people to participate. Despite the minor challenges that Lisa faces while biking to work (e.g., rain and rough roads), Lisa’s experiences in the Smart Commute program have inspired her to bike to work on a regular basis.
It’s Your Turn!
It is clear from our interviews that Smart Commute programs across the state are great ways to engage in your community, meet people, participate in physical activity, help the environment and have fun. The most popular mode of transportation for our interviews was biking; however, the Trans4M staff are utilizing public transportation, walking, telecommuting and carpooling during this month’s Lansing Smart Commute, and on a regular basis.
If your community has not already had their Smart Commute Week, sign yourself up! If the week has passed, or there isn’t a Smart Commute program in your community, there’s nothing stopping you from experiencing the benefits of doing Smart Commute on your own. Although a Smart Commute may start as a week-long activity, it could result in a lifestyle change, impacting yourself and the world around you.
Written by Liz Treutel and Kajal Ravani- Trans4M Fellows