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What are our most basic needs to ensure survival in the modern world?

Food. Clothing. Shelter. And ... transportation?

Average household expenditures in metro Atlanta paint a picture that few of us may have considered until the sour economy caused us to reexamine our spending. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey, Atlanta households spend:

  • 38% of income on housing
  • 17% of income on transportation
  • 12% of income on food
  • 4% of income on clothing

Shocking to think that, on average, Atlantans spend more of our income on transportation than we do on food. So, how did transportation muscle its way into what we consider our bare essentials for survival?

It's got plenty to do with explosive population growth in the Sun Belt, combined with an unyielding appetite for suburban living and economic expansion that favors automobile travel. Over the past decade, the region has brought in a wave of new residents equal to the entire population of Denver. And the average household has 1.7 vehicles. Most commuters drive alone to and from work at a cost of 54¢ a mile.

In several ways, this snapshot of household spending hints at our willingness to pay in order to keep distance between work life and home life. But the current recession has created more pressure on household budgets everywhere. Can we afford to keep transportation -- specifically driving alone an average of 39.4 miles a day roundtrip to the jobs that are the source of our household income, as 84% of us do -- as high up on the list of bare essentials as it is?

When times are lean, a typical household's first move is to cut vacations, dining out and big-ticket purchases in order to keep a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food on the table. But, at a hefty 17% of household expenditures, it should be the cost of transportation that warrants a closer look.

In a banner year that brought high gas prices, traffic angst and environmental sustainability to the forefront, an unprecedented number of commuters, employers and schools chose to become part of the solution.

The past 10 months seem to have gone by in dog years. Somewhere in the maelstrom of activity, more Georgians found relief from the high cost of commuting and from poor air quality. For The Clean Air Campaign and its partners, 2008 has been a year of noteworthy accomplishments. Here is our top 5 list of landmark success stories so far this year:

  1. With a 3X increase over 2007, the regional incentive program that pays commuters $3 a day to use alternatives provided relief from soaring prices at the pump.
  2. Twice as many employers joined The Clean Air Campaign this year compared to the same period in 2007. Today, some 1,500 employers are Partners of either The Clean Air Campaign or one of Atlanta’s nine transportation management associations.
  3. In 2008, awareness of The Clean Air Campaign’s efforts expanded beyond metro Atlanta’s borders, positioning Georgia as a national leader in commute options programs. These success stories were touted nationally by the likes of NBC, CBS, CNN, Forbes and USA Today.
  4. Nearly 60 schools in metro Atlanta signed on to be Clean Air Schools, representing more than 40,000 students.
  5. In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strengthened air quality standards to better protect public health. Metro Atlanta braced for more bad air days. But during the 2008 smog season, metro Atlanta experienced 29 violations for ozone, fewer than last year despite the more stringent standards.

So what does all this mean for the region? Each day, with support from the area's nine transportation management associations, The Clean Air Campaign's programs eliminate at least 1.2 million vehicle miles of travel and keep 600 tons of pollution out of the air. But we know there's so much more we can do. It starts by creating more conversations with more commuters, employers and schools.

So, what do you think the region needs to do in order to double these results? Weigh in and let us know.

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