Modal Citizen: Lettie Hernandez Ongie, clean-commute crusader

Chatting with a champion of transit, mobility, connectivity, and good urbanism

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Like many people, Lettie Hernandez Ongie traces her career path back to a college course, in her case environmental communications at the University of Georgia. As an employer program manager with the Clean Air Campaign, she works with state agencies such as the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Governor’s office to encourage their employees to adopt clean modes of transportation.

But her work took on a more personal significance when her daughter, born prematurely two years ago, was diagnosed with Reactive Airway Disease. Livie Ongie receives two puffs from an inhaler or nebulizer each day and supplementary oxygen each night. When not working on site, Ongie works from home in Roswell while her daughter attends daycare. She shared with us some tips, resources, and—in case you needed it—a little extra motivation to get out of the car.

Is there a particular state agency that has really embraced clean commuting?
We have the PACE Awards in November, which is where we recognize those employers, and I was actually talking to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles this morning about making sure they have their application in. They’re amazing in that they encourage all of their employees to go through telework training, and they have a number of employees who take advantage of transit and carpool to work.

I didn’t know there was such thing as telework training.
Everyone in our office has a favorite form of clean commute, and that’s mine because it allows for a great work-life balance. We have a resource team on staff at the Clean Air Campaign, the Alternative Work Arrangements team, that provides free consultation on telework, compressed workweeks, and flexible schedules for any employer that’s interested to learn more.

What are some quick tips for successful teleworking?
First and foremost, it’s not an alternative for dependent care or childcare. If you happen to have someone at home with you, it’s making sure they know you’re working and taking your job very seriously. We always recommend that you take breaks from time to time; when you’re not getting up to take a coffee break or running to the restroom, you end up sitting there for longer than you realize. I’m a big to-do lister as well. A lot of people plan out what they’re going to do the day before so they can go through and show their productivity.

A recent Harvard/Berkeley study ranked Atlanta dead last in income mobility—meaning people here are less likely to rise from the lower class than people in other cities. Many have pointed to sprawl and limited public transportation as factors. Does the Clean Air Campaign offer any resources for the carless?
The Clean Air Campaign works really closely with the Atlanta Regional Commission on Georgia Commute Options, and we encourage mobility throughout the twenty counties. We have more than 20,000 people in our database who are either looking for carpool partners or looking to add people to their carpool, so that’s a great resource (logyourcommute.org).

For those employees that do take clean commutes, we provide a service called Guaranteed Ride Home, so in the event that they get sick and they walked or biked to work, or they have unscheduled overtime, we provide them with rides so that they don’t feel stranded. That’s one of the coolest services I think.

Your daughter cannot breathe as easily as other children. Are you able to tell a difference in her comfort level on smoggy days?
We do have to be conscious of days when there’s bad air quality and it’s a lot warmer out. This summer we’ve had so much rain and better air quality— July 30 was our first air quality exceedance for the whole year, which is outrageous. Versus last summer, we can tell there’s less tightness in her chest.

How has having Livie changed your perspective on your work?
Having a child in general has inspired me on a whole different level. It’s one of the first things they tell you when you find out you’re pregnant, but children’s lungs are so little, and children in general are so susceptible, and you think about all the things they are breathing in every day. And if I can help in some way, shape, or form, that’s what I want to do.

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