Dr. Gridlock (Stimulating a Better Commute, January 29, 2009; Washington Post) and Eric Weiss (New Cash, Not New Projects, January 29, 2009; Washington Post) discuss what the Stimulus may mean for our commute here in the DC area. The good news is that the stimulus will pump money into state DOTs and Metro for shovel-ready transportation projects that would other-wise not happen anytime soon. But according to the authors, as much as these are needed, it doesn't seem like these projects will really improve your commute anytime soon.
Says Weiss "Although the stimulus funds might sound like a lot of money, they fall far short of the region's needs. Washington has the second-worst traffic in the country, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Only Los Angeles has worse." And both Weiss and Dr. Gridlock point out that the money will be spent on existing, not new projects, with emphasis on maintenance. Says the good Dr. "But huge as this stimulus plan is, it won't be cutting 20 minutes off your commute or guaranteeing you a seat on a train. That's going to take a bit longer and cost a lot more."
But there are indeed some "operations-ready" programs we could initiate or expand right now that would affect the area's roads in the short term. Problem is the entire Stimulus discussion seems to be centered on capital - thus the term shovel-ready - projects. We just need policy makers to include some of these lower-cost, yet high impact TDM operations-ready programs along with the shovel-ready list.
What am I talking about?
Reprising some of a post done a while back (Time For Plan B for Northern Virginia Traffic. Invest More In TDM, July 1, 2008, CommuterPageBlog), there are indeed things the region 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.
Most localities 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. There's a build it and they'll come philosophy with transportation projects that just isn't borne out by the research when it is applied to non-drive alone modes. It's time the politicians and transportation planners put some real money into the demand side. Tripling the budgets of local and regional TDM agencies annually would be equivalent to the cost of enhancing one local traffic interchange and have way more regional impact.
One of the main tenants of the Stimulus is job creation. If new TDM programs were started or the existing ones were quickly expanded (this would take months not years), TDM agencies across the country would be hiring sales people to help companies implement flex-time, telework, and commuter benefits; customer service agents working at retail Commuter Stores; distribution staff who process and deliver transportation information to individuals and companies; logistics staff who keep information up-to-date at bus stops or in building lobbies and retail stores; commuter specialists who help you over the phone or online or who fulfill your ticket request; marketing people who help you understand the benefits of commute options; web people who develop cool tools to make your commuter easy; and people who educate about biking, walking and other modes. This is just some of what TDM looks like as an operation on the ground.
Investments in operations-ready TDM would mean more jobs and less congestion. Now. It needs to be part of the Stimulus and overall transportation strategy of the region and country. And it will help all those shovel-ready transit and roads projects be more efficient too. It all needs to be done and to work together.
Resources about how TDM works and it's effectiveness:
- 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 ServicesChief for Arlington County in the Transportation Division of the Department of Environmental Services, manager of CommuterPageBlog and a Metro/biking commuter from Rosemont in Alexandria.