The TH Interview: Jenny Mack, Spokesperson for the California State Automobile Association

AAA of Northern California offers a wide array of automotive, travel, insurance and financial services to more than four million members. AAA has been a leader and advocate for the safety and security of all travelers since it was founded more than 100 years ago. To help build awareness of all the new alternative fuels and vehicles available, AAA of Northern California launched the Greenlight Initiative. The new program will help motorists make sense of all the new options available and encourage the development of transportation choices. We recently had a chance to chat with Jenny Mack, AAA's spokesperson for the California State Automobile Association (CSAA) and the Greenlight Initiative™.TreeHugger: How long has the California State Automobile Association's Greenlight program been in existence? Are other AAA organizations in the U.S. active with their own programs in this regard, as well?

Jennifer Mack: We launched it in November 2005. This was the first such AAA initiative in the nation. It was organized by the AAA club representing Northern California, Nevada, and Utah.

TH: What environmental, educational, or public policy organizations have been involved in the genesis of Greenlight?

JM: The Greenlight™ Initiative is AAA's own program, but we are open to establishing relationships and partnerships with a variety of organizations. Throughout the century-long history of the CSAA, it has been a pioneer in environmental stewardship. For example, in 1956, the Club spearheaded the Redwood Highway Bypass Bill, protecting the Humboldt Redwoods from the construction of a new highway through its midst. We have continued our hard work through to this day. 'We have green roots.'

There are many organizations we'd like to partner with in the future. One in particular we are working with already is the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

TH: Reflecting on the many "spare the air"days this year, what are your thoughts on the effectiveness of the program from CSAA's standpoint? Was the program considered successful this past summer? Were there an excessive number of days? To what can this be attributed? Will Greenlight help resolve the problem in coming years?

JM: Anything that raises awareness about air quality issues is a positive step. As a company, AAA encourages our employees to carpool to the office and supports telecommuting during spare the air days. Likewise, we certainly encourage our members to take such steps themselves.

TH: There are a number of tools available at the Greenlight's website. How useful are they to members in protecting the environment and saving money at the same time?

JM: On our website, we offer unbiased, reliable information. "It's not our purpose to advocate for the use of any particular fuel or technology; we just want to give people information about their choices.

TH: Are there forms for people to submit their suggestions?

JM:Yes. Send comments and suggestions to Greenlight@csaa.com or call toll-free: (866) 554-9979. We'd love to hear from them.

TH: Which tool-functions have been most used? For example, I notice the bike site has an interactive mapping feature for trip planning.

JM: I don't have that information available off-hand. We do know that our FAQ's are quite popular, as well as the section on Latest Greenlight News. We don't want to limit people to just AAA's information, though. That's why we point to a variety of additional tools and resources maintained by other organizations.

TH: What is your opinion of car-sharing? Do organizations and companies like City CarShare and ZipCar work with CSAA?

JM: It's exciting to see the growing number of choices becoming available, particularly in urban areas with car-share programs. AAA supports "transportation choice." We want people to have a variety of transportation options--whether that's public transportation, car-sharing, or improved infrastructure.

TH: How effective have various programs been on a dollars-saved basis? Can you estimate how much CSAA members collectively have saved and how much CO2 has been diverted since the program's inception?

JM: It's funny you should ask that, since we recently partnered with the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis in a study--still in progress--to explore the environmental impacts of hybrids. We anticipate having published results to share with the public by the end of November 2006.

TH: Do we need to be members of CSAA to support the Greenlight program?

JM: Not at all. Many activities are open to non-members, besides members. For example, in July we had an alternative fuels car rally from Silicon Valley to Sacramento. Cars of all types of technologies and fuels participated in this innovative event. The rally concluded at our AAA Car Care Plus auto repair facility in Sacramento. AAA Car Care Plus facilities have been certified by California EPA as environmentally friendly "model shops."

Also, we are offering a class on hybrids Nov. 9, 2006, which is free to the public. There are still five spaces left at this writing. The objective is optimizing fuel efficiency from your hybrid.

TH: I was surprised to find your connection to 511.org services. Doesn't commuting tempt people to utilize services competing with those CSAA profits from, at least indirectly?

JM: I really don't think so. I'd emphasize here that we are not just about emergency roadside assistance and cars. We support all transportation options--including public transit.

With membership, we offer a number of services, including travel, insurance, and AAA discounts-- many of which could pay for your membership after even a single use. In the end, the cost is worth it, even if you don't drive.

TH: Have any people in urban areas notified CSAA they cancelled their membership after selling their cars--once they realized what public transportation and car share organizations are available to them?

JM: Not that I know of off-hand, though I'm sure it happens. Here in SF, with its great public transit, it is true that people can live without a car.

TH: New networks of biking routes have really "put SF on the map" nationally. Do any of your programs help serve the biker-driver? For example, insurance or emergency services for such members could be valuable in case of a bike break-down for someone who only needs to drive occasionally.

JM: No, but we do emphasize the importance of pedestrian and bike safety through our traffic safety department.

TH: What new programs are being considered?

JM: We are always exploring new ways of improving our service to our members. In the case of Greenlight, a survey indicated there was a great deal of interest among members in learning about alternative fuels. Indications that people were fed up with high costs of gas, and wanted to diminish the impact on the environment spurred us to take action and launch the Greenlight Initiative™. As an illustration of just how seriously we took this, CSAA switched its entire fleet of 400 vehicles to hybrids earlier this year.

We really listen to our members, and the new Greenlight Initiative™ is a reflection of that. We are hopeful that we can expand successful programs such as Greenlight in the future.

TH: What single thing could individuals do to support Greenlight and programs like it?

JM: Visit our website (www.aaa.com/greenlight) and send us feedback letting us know if you support our programs--and how we can improve them.

Note: this website provides a wealth of information on alternative fuels and engine designs.

*November is Hybrid Awareness Month in California. It was enacted by the California State Legislature.

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