"It was bad enough for gridlocked Northern Virginia that leaders in Richmond failed this week to come up with a transportation funding plan, but there's even worse news: There's no Plan B. The result will be more congested roads, crowded trains and possibly an exodus of jobs from the region, officials said yesterday."
Thus began a story by the ever thoughtful Eric Weiss and Michael Laris in Saturday's Washington Post about the consequences for Northern Virginia on the failure of our elected officials to successfully deal with transportation funding issues (Hope for The Best, Expect The Worst, July 12). Weiss and Laris document the opportunities lost to partisan bickering for an infusion of needed dollars that would help Northern Virginia climb out of the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation. Local officials worry about Northern Virginia's competitiveness with other areas and cite companies moving away from Atlanta's traffic-clogged roads as a cautionary tale. But what really struck me about the story though was the statement that "there's no Plan B." True enough.
There doesn't seem to be any Plan B other than to hope for the political players to change next election and to try again next year. However, there are indeed things Northern Virginia could do more of to help alleviate traffic congestion, and help our environment at the same time, in the relatively short-term. It's called TDM (transportation (or travel) demand management). It's fairly inexpensive when compared to building additional supply (roads and transit) and it can be implemented much more quickly than capital intensive projects. Don't take my word for it. According to the Transportation Research Board:
"Many studies that have compared mobility and air quality strategies have concluded that demand management strategies are among the most cost-effective in that they can reduce a trip, mile of travel or ton of emissions for a relatively modest amount of money. Demand-side strategies may not be the primary solution to these problems, but if they are applied in the right situation, they can help address traffic and air pollution problems in modest, yet very affordable way.
So what is TDM? Managing demand encourages travelers to change their travel mode from driving alone to a shared ride, public transit, bike, walk or other alternatives like telework. It also encourages those who do drive to make informed choices of travel route, time and location. (Here's one local example of how you get people to do this). These strategies help us get the best we can out of our existing roads and transit infrastructure. Simple enough. So TDM could be our Plan B, right?
I think it is fair to say that if our region is going to maintain its quality of life and it's competitiveness we need to invest more money in transportation infrastructure from transit to bike facilities to roads and more walkable streetscapes. Using TDM should always be part of the mix to get the most out of these facilities. But for the short-term, if there isn't the hundreds of millions we need and expected on the supply-side, shouldn't we be putting more money than we currently are, maybe tens of millions, into TDM as our Plan B? Surely we can come up with that relatively small amount.
Northern Virginia, the region and most places across the U.S. woefully underfund demand-side strategies. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because it's the softer side of transportation, because it is less understood or newer. Other than in Arlington and parts of Montgomery County the staff and resources allocated to TDM across the region is a pittance compared to what is spent on the supply side of transportation. And Arlington and Montgomery - as good of models as they are - could be doing a whole lot more if they had the resources. It's time the politicians and transportation planners put some real money into the demand side. Doubling or even tripling the budgets of local and regional (Commuter Connections) TDM agencies annually would be equivalent to the cost of enhancing one traffic interchange. The results could help us better get through these tough times. It could be our Plan B.
In some near future posts I'll begin to explore some specific examples. In the meantime there are some resources below for folks that want to learn more.
- Arlington County Commuter Services (TDM done right)
- Montgomery County Commuter Services (Another great example of TDM done right)
- TDM Strategies from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute
- Mitigating Traffic Congestion. The Role of Demand-Side Strategies. By U.S. DOT & ACT
- Analyzing the Effectiveness of Commuter Benefits Programs - Transportation Research Board Report
- ACT - Association for Commuter Transportation - the TDM's industry's professional trade association
- UITP - International Association of Public Transport
- CUTR - Center for Urban Transportation Research
- ACCS TDM Research Center - local research into TDM
- This is Smart Growth, Chapter 6: Freedom to Choose How We Get Around. Published by the Smart Growth Network
- Vanquishing the Density Demon - Jim Bacon's great take on TDM
Chris Hamilton is the Commuter Services Chief for Arlington County, manager of CommuterPageBlog and The TDM Professional blog and is a biking/Metrorail commuter from Alexandria, Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C.