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Drivers get cash for changing the way they commute

LAWRENCEVILLE - Roberto Chandler claims that carpooling saved his life.

For most people, it's a figure of speech. But for Chandler, who had two accidents in a week because he couldn't keep his eyes open on his commute, the claim may be literal.

"At one point, I was so tired," he said. "I had to get up early, drop the kids off in the morning ... I dozed off, my foot slid off the brake."

After one of the family's cars died, Chandler said his drive from Canton to Norcross became even longer with stops at day care.

But after three months in a carpool there and another month carpooling from Marietta to Norcross after he moved, Chandler said he wouldn't go back to driving alone.

"I would have had some issues with staying awake," he said. "In the morning, I was leaving early enough that it was all pitch-black. I tried the music thing, but nothing worked long enough."

One of Chandler's carpooling partners, Stephen Ervin, is in charge of alternative commute options at Reed Construction Data, the company where they both work.

When he started carpooling initially - for six months a year ago - Ervin said he earned $130 as part of a Cash for Commuters program through the Clean Air Campaign.

Michael Halicki, the group's spokesman, said more than 700 people have signed up for the program in the past six weeks, 223 of them from Gwinnett. That's more than two and a half times the number of people who had signed up in April.

When gas prices are this high - the Atlanta average was $2.926 a gallon on Friday according to AAA - Halicki said the $3 a day incentive isn't needed to bring more people into commute alternatives such as carpooling, biking or teleworking.

"Days like today, the incentives sell themselves," Halicki said. "What happens is new people come to us as gas prices go up. Most of them stick with us."

John Dama, a computer engineer who works in Lawrenceville, used to drive 28 miles from his Lilburn home to a job near Perimeter Mall.

For the past month, he has been cycling 11.1 miles each way and savoring the chance to whiz past stopped cars on his way to work. Dama said it takes him fewer than 15 more minutes to bike to work than it does to drive, and he gets his exercise in at the same time.

"For me, it's a time saver," he said. "It doesn't really take me that much longer."

According to U.S. Census data released last week, public transportation is the most popular commute alternative in the city of Atlanta, with 11.7 percent of all commuters taking buses or trains to work, the 13th-highest percentage for the 50 cities with the largest work forces.

Just over 9 percent of Atlantans carpool, with nearly 5 percent working at home, 3 percent walking and half a percentage biking to work, Census data shows. The rest of commuters drive to work alone.

Laura Lee Sandberg, who has taken an Xpress bus to work downtown at Georgia Pacific since she moved to Gwinnett in 2003 said she based part of her decision to live in the area on the fact that she wouldn't have to drive.

Sandberg said she earned about $135 from the Clean Air Campaign when she first started riding the 103 bus from Discover Mills, and has since won three $25 gift cards.

She sleeps, reads, listens to the radio and even finished some work for her master's program on the bus.

"It takes a lot of stress out of everything," she said. "It gives me time to unwind before I get home."

Terrie Anderson, a Lawrenceville resident who works in Alpharetta, said she brought home about $104 and now only has to fill the tank on her SUV every two weeks or so.

The high gas prices led her to consider carpooling to her job, she said. And a company policy allows her to telecommute one day each week, something she said enhances her productivity and saves her from spending her time on the road.

"I'm hoping to be able to do it two or three days a week," she said. "Fridays, I don't like to go anywhere. I don't like to drive."