Clean-Air Commuting

COMMUTERS in Atlanta have been hearing an insistent message this week: Get your car off the road.

In an effort to reduce air pollution, traffic congestion, and energy use, the city has been urging residents to ``take a breather'' from driving alone, suggesting they bike, walk, carpool, or ride public transportation instead. It designated Tuesday as Bike to Work Day and Thursday as Clean Commute Day, the latter an annual citywide effort to encourage commuters to find an alternative way to get to work.

Campaigns like these, which have been taking place in other cities as well, will become increasingly important as the federal government seeks to limit the number of people driving alone. As part of a federal program called Employee Trip Reduction, employers in 10 states, among them New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, will soon be required to report to the government how their employees get to work. They must also file plans for reducing the number of workers who drive alone. Companies that fail to persuade more people to carpool or ride public transportation could face tens of thousands of dollars a day in fines. The requirements come under the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Requiring employers to police the corporate parking lot extends the responsibilities of companies already burdened by regulations. But as pollution-free commuting becomes a more urgent imperative, making employers accountable for change may encourage them to offer commuter-friendly options such as flexible work schedules and telecommuting from home.

Other incentives, such as transit pass discounts and carpool lanes, must come from the public sector.

Beyond reducing traffic congestion, these changes will save drivers money. For example, a study by the Conservation Law Foundation finds that it costs 94 cents a mile for one person to drive on Boston city streets during rush hour. That compares to 58 cents a mile to ride the bus, 34 cents to carpool on the expressway, and just 13 cents to ride a bicycle.

Getting Americans to alter their commuting habits - giving up traveling first class surrounded by stereo, food, and air-conditioning - won't be easy. But commuting without polluting is undeniably the road to the future, and the message from Atlanta and other traffic jam localities seems to be that the future is already here.

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