SPUR’s report Critical Cooling recommends 42 options for reducing local carbon emissions. This is one of them. To learn about all 42 ideas, read the full report

Individualized Marketing Programs (Travelchoice)

Urbanist Article May 1, 2009
Annual savings potential:
Annual public cost:
Public cost per ton:
Implementing agency:
Horizon year:
3,900 metric tons
$1.5 million
Department of the Environment


  • Individualized marketing programs can reduce VMT by San Francisco residents by 5 percent
  • The annual cost per household is $42, and there will be 357,000 households in San Francisco by 2030.
  • Program impacts are not likely to persist long after marketing has concluded


Outreach to ensure that San Francisco residents are fully aware of their transportation choices can encourage residents to choose transit, walking, biking, or carpooling over single occupancy vehicle travel, reducing VMT and CO2 emissions. Tests of this type of marketing have shown that in the right circumstances, it can help reduce emissions.

However, marketing suffers from a number of disadvantages. First, its potential is limited to those households with a true choice: households must have access to a car, and access to transit or walkable destinations. Another barrier to scaling up is that there may not be sufficient agency or nonprofit capacity to implement the program on a very large scale. Another challenge may be the fact that outcomes of the program may not be persistent over time. Unlike one-time investments for new infrastructure, marketing would probably need to be an ongoing investment to yield sustained benefits.

What we do now
San Francisco residents have access to the best transit options in the region. However, MTC estimates that in 2015, about 25 percent of trips inside San Francisco will be made by transit, 41 percent by auto (including 31 percent as the driver of a car), 1 percent by bicycle, and 33 percent by walking. San Francisco residents traveling to other parts of the region have much higher auto mode shares: 90 percent in of these trips are in vehicles occupied by only one or two people, with 72 percent of trips by solo drivers.

What we could do
TravelChoice is a program that reduces driving and congestion while promoting healthy physical activity. Through door-to-door outreach, it connects interested residents with information and incentives to add more walking, bicycle riding, public transit (including BART) and carpooling into their daily routines. The program has been the subject of a pilot project in Alameda, Berkeley and the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, along with a survey to evaluate its impact. The program was coordinated by Transform, the multiagency transportation and land use organization formerly known as TALC.

The surveys show that the TravelChoice program surpassed its initial goals in reducing auto trips and increasing transit ridership in Alameda. Drive-alone trips were reduced 14 percent in the Alameda program. This reduction was primarily due to a 34 percent increase in transit usage and a 5 percent increase in carpooling. Follow-up surveys suggest that these changes may dissipate somewhat over time. However, even short-term changes in travel behavior can yield CO2 emissions benefits.

The same program implemented in Fruitvale and Berkeley had much less dramatic impacts, revealing that the characteristics of the area can have a large effect. Marketing of this type is most effective in reducing auto trips when it is directed at a population where most household have access to both car and transit. Household without cars are already producing no auto trips; households without access to transit are less likely to change their travel behavior in response to marketing.

The Alameda implementation of Travel Choice included 7,800 households. The cost of the program, excluding the surveys used to document its effects, was $330,000. The cost of TravelChoice per participating household is therefore roughly $42. Applied to all 357,000 San Francisco households, these costs scale up to $15 million.

A more likely scenario would be an application of the program to some but not all San Francisco households. If the program reached out to 10 percent of households, the program costs would be $1.5 million.

Carbon savings potential
We estimate that implementation of Travel Choice in San Francisco has the potential to decrease auto trips and associated emissions by 5 percent. Trips originating in San Francisco generate 6.1 million VMT per day. The program could reduce daily VMT by 306,000, and annual VMT by 110 million. This decrease would result in a reduction of 39,000 metric tons of CO2.

We also estimate that the impact of marketing is not likely to persist substantially after the program itself has concluded. Therefore, the cost of the program must be applied to one year of impacts. The cost per ton of emissions abatement would be $380.
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