This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Converting drivers to bus riders, 262 commuters at a time

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It was a challenge that some UCLA commuters took on as a dare: Give up your campus parking pass for one to three summer months in exchange for a free bus pass, and then decide if you want your pass back in mid-September.

The Transportation Department's "Vacation from the Pump" program made the offer on the hunch that riders who made it through the summer might give up their cars for good. Their instincts were good: Of the 380 people who participated, only 118 — less than one-third — reclaimed their parking passes, said department Director Rene Fortier on Sept. 17, just a few days after the program ended.

If the remaining commuters continue riding the bus, the extra $25,000 outlay the department paid this summer for bus passes will have netted them 262 public transit converts at a cost of about $95 per new bus rider.

Rider reactions were mixed — comments included "I absolutely love the bus" and "I hate the bus" — but the fact that the program encouraged so many newcomers to step aboard makes it a hit, Fortier said.

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"If we were able to convert that many people from driving, that's very successful for us," she said. "Programs like this are aimed at getting employees to try something that they haven't tried before and find out that they may like it. Given that the program was so successful, we'll probably do it again next summer."

The benefits included reducing pollution and congestion as well as meeting regulatory goals to reduce the number of trips to campus and the number of single drivers, noted David Karwaski, manager of planning and policy for transportation. The number of car-miles driven was reduced by more than 500,000 miles, he said.

"We took that many miles of commuters driving around the LA region off the roads," Karwaski said. "We also reduced green-house gas emissions — carbon dioxide — by about 230 metric tons. So we have these short-term benefits from the program, and the long-term benefits of actually permanently changing some of the commuting behavior."

Some participants said they had tried public transit years ago and given up on it, only to be pleasantly surprised by improvements to bus systems this summer, Karwaski said.

Not everyone was as impressed, including Communication Studies Assistant Professor Tim Groeling, who joined the program to try to save gas money and to help the environment. Ultimately, he said, the bus sucked up too much time, and he'll be returning to his car.

"I hate waiting for buses that are not on time, and then I can't get any work done if I can't get a seat," Groeling recalled. "It added about an hour of travel time to my regular commute, and on the days I couldn't sit down, that was almost entirely wasted time ...(but) I really did like saving the money."

Others complained of enduring fellow passengers' obnoxious cell-phone conversations, and feeling like getting a seat meant coping with standing riders' "heinies in my face," as put by Estellaleigh Franenberg, a senior marketing manager with the Alumni Association. Nevertheless, she plans to keep taking the bus.

"The escalating per-gallon price of gas was causing me severe financial hardship," Franenberg said. "I had considered giving up my parking pass earlier, but clung to it as a security blanket." The offer of a free bus pass and the promise that she only had to try it out for a month tilted the scales.

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"Regardless of my dislike of the Metro system, I am very thankful for the program," she added. "Every penny counts, and these programs are allowing a bit of economic relief."

Still other riders, like Mae Gordon, an administrative specialist in the Geffen School of Medicine, are true converts.

"Overall, I enjoyed the commute," Gordon said. "Riding is care-free: no traffic jams, no searching for a good parking space, and no parking fees." Delays that made her late to work were inevitable, she noted, but added that she was free to talk on her cell phone, had time to read or listen to her iPod, and got daily exercise walking to and from the bus.

"I am not returning to my car," Gordon said. "I like the thought of leaving a smaller carbon footprint, and I believe gas prices will rise again."

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