NEWNAN, Ga. - Like students escaping from their teacher's grasp, the insurance executives and computer analysts couldn't shed their corporate veneers any faster when they hopped into a waiting van after a long day at work.
As soon as their hourlong commute to south Atlanta's suburbs started, they pounded on the van's plush seats, begging fellow rider Freddie Johnson to indulge them in a joke.
Her snappy barb about a ditzy blonde began a raucous ride of inside jokes and quick asides.
"We let loose," sighs a relieved Sandy Moore, one of 11 passengers who spend their commutes to and from a suburban Atlanta office park together in the comfy white van.
The "Don't Worry Be Happy" van, as they cheerfully call it, is another example of the Clean Air Campaign's efforts to keep drivers off the city's traffic-choked roads.
For 10 years, the Atlanta group has parsed out incentives to persuade road warriors to end their daily traffic battles, including a one-of-a-kind Cash for Commuters program that pays $3 per day, up to $180 over three months, to anyone who promises not to drive to or from work.
In a city where the daily commute ranks among the nation's worst, the Clean Air Campaign has curbed the gush of drivers packing Atlanta's roadways. The group claims to take 42 million trips off Atlanta's streets each year, along with 1,800 tons of air pollution.
The group has organized a massive database that lets would-be carpoolers meet each other. Backed by a $7 million budget, an ad campaign broadcasts calls to bike, walk or ride the subway.
The campaign has joined with about 450 area employers and offers a slew of incentives to stay off the roads, such as the $425 monthly subsidies the campaign gives to startup van programs like the vanpool that Ms. Johnson and her pals take each day.
The program drew about 4,300 participants last year - many of them joining after gas prices topped $3 per gallon after Hurricane Katrina, said Ellen Macht, the group's director.
The Atlanta group is among a growing number of organizations turning to incentives to persuade drivers to stay off the roadways, said Kevin Shannon, the director of the Association for Commuter Transportation, an 800-member group that focuses on commute alternatives. For example, Houston's miniPOOL program offers commuters $50 each month to pay down the cost of vanpools.
Some, however, are alarmed by the rewards. Daniel Tighe, the miniPOOL manager, said he's among the industry's few critics of the reliance on giveaways.
"It's like GM giving huge incentives to buy their cars. It can't continue forever," he said. "At some point, we're not going to be able to afford to grow these programs."