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Congestion isn't just about highways

Trends indicate that Americans are driving less and have diminished interest in owning a car. But what happens when the transportation modes they switch to become as crowded as the highways they left?

Photo by James Lee on Flickr.

In the United States, we usually focus on gridlock and time lost while driving, the "primary mode" for a majority of commuters. For me, and for a growing number of people, driving alone is the "alternative mode" of transportation, a term traditionally used to describe transit, biking, and walking.

Meanwhile, my primary modes of transportation are increasingly congested. I stand in crowded buses and Metro cars, jostling around to let fellow passengers on and off, nearly falling over as I try to read a book or edit a report for work. In order to relieve congestion on all modes, we have to change the way we talk about congestion.

In 2008, Washington D.C.'s Metro identified multiple stations where platforms are overcrowded or will soon be overcrowded, and one of the main purposes of Metro's Momentum plan for investment through 2025 is to relieve crowding in the system's core.

The rapid roll out of bicycle infrastructure in the region is also suffering from success; heavy volume on the 15th Street and L Street cycletracks, as well as where the Custis Trail hits Lynn and Fort Myer in Rosslyn frequently causes backups for me and, based on the queues of cyclists that I see, many others.

Day after day, my colleagues and I at Arlington County Commuter Services send the message that, as transportation demand management (TDM, or mobility management) professionals, we make the transportation system work better. Yet our key measure of success is based on only one portion of the transportation system: the number of automobile trips that we shift off of the road network each day and on to other modes (see graphic below).

When TDM/mobility management is practiced with the goal of removing single-occupancy-vehicle (SOV) trips from the road, it can increase congestion for those of us who do not drive. Where is the TDM/mobility management for people like me?

Infographic from Mobility Lab.

As TDM/mobility management professionals and behavior changers, we must expand our horizons, and work to relieve congestion across all modes in the transportation network. If we do this, we can improve the commutes of the many individuals who, either by choice or by force of circumstances, do not drive. Focusing on all modes will keep our industry relevant for this growing segment of the population.

Using TDM strategies for other modes is not new. A London Underground poster from 1942, which encourages staggered work schedules in order to relieve crowding on the tube, is evidence of how to apply the active outreach and marketing that we use to shift SOV trips to transit.

In our own region, we already see transit-oriented TDM in the form of Capital Bikeshare, which is shifting trips off of the congested Metrorail system. Of course, Capital Bikeshare also suffers from congestion in the form of bike-rebalancing problems.

Broadening the TDM/mobility management industry's sense of responsibility to include the efficiency of the entire transportation system will elevate the importance of transit, biking, walking, and sharing rides in conversations about transportation. Just as we need to eliminate use of the phrase "alternative modes" ("high-efficiency modes" instead?) and the implicit privilege that the phrase gives to driving, we need to stop considering automobile travel as the mode needing management with the support of other modes.

In addition to applying our toolbox of monetary incentives and outreach and education programs to other modes, we also need to measure our programs' success against levels of transit congestion, bike congestion, and the flow of people regardless of mode. Why does this change in measurement matter? As the legendary 20th century management consultant Peter Drucker said, "what gets measured gets managed."

The Texas Transportation Institute's oft-quoted Urban Mobility Reports create buzz and urgency around reducing highway congestion, but we do not regularly talk (or generate panic) about congestion on other modes. In a recent Business Vancouver article, writer Peter Ladner observes that "while car congestion costs are consistently assessed and circulated, the costs of transit congestion are rarely measured and never discussed."

Ladner notes that because the Vancouver public does not discuss transit congestion much, support for transit funding suffers. Thus, if researchers start making regular reports of congestion on other modes, then political support for funding TDM, transit, biking, and walking infrastructure could be easier to obtain.

A multimodal approach to congestion would be beneficial even in regions where there is little congestion on transit or in bike lanes; in a car-dependent region with heavy road congestion and low bus ridership, for example, showing volume and delay on both modes side by side could spark conversations about shifting travel from one mode to the other.

Make no mistake, reducing SOV trips (a "low-efficiency mode?") remains an important and valid TDM/mobility-management goal, and I am proud of the work that Mobility Lab is doing to estimate the number of drive-alone (or SOV) trips that Arlington County Commuter Services takes off of our region's roads. These estimates allow us to compare more readily our work to that of road and transit builders, and I cannot yet offer a comparable equation or method for evaluating our work on the basis of all modes.

However, getting to an efficient, multimodal future requires us to become truly multimodal. In order to advance our efforts we, as the people who create behavior change, need to look at ourselves, and change our own behavior.

Crossposted at the Mobility Lab blog.

Stephen Crim is research director at Mobility Lab. An urban planner at heart, he is passionate about improving travel options that reduce automobile dependence. He is a former board member of Ride New Orleans and holds degrees from MIT and NYU. 


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Interesting article. But while you mention London's efforts, you don't mention the various DMV area efforts that have eased some of the congestion (on all modes of transport), for example, the biggest employer in the DMV area is the Federal Government, and they have long ago implemented "flexwork" and "alternative work schedules", so I've noticed that, for example, Mondays and Fridays are a lot less congested (on all modes) than they used to be.

"Flex/Telework" has also decreased the number of people commuting, as has the return to urban living that has taken hold in the area...I see many many people who now just walk to work, because they live less than a 30 min walk from their place of employment.

I do agree with overcrowding on Metro, esp. Orange and Red lines. But if Metro could get their act together and if tax payers in all three jurisdictions were willing to pay more to fund Metro, we might be able to ease those problems.

by LuvDusty on Sep 12, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

Something I think about to pass the time on the Red Line: every time a train stops other than at a station- it's generally equivalent to either the delays forming behind a crash, or the stop & go traffic that can arise from overloaded highways.

It's a fun reminder how all modes can share so much: stop & go traffic = "train in front of us" = circling at an airport = boats in line at a canal or strait = flooding at an inlet = internet latency

by Bossi on Sep 12, 2013 1:23 pm • linkreport

The cost of congestion is also different for different modes. If you tend to be reading or writing when sitting around, a 20-minute wait for a train is alot better than sitting in a traffic jam.

If you need to practice singing, however, nothing beats a single occupancy vehicle (except maybe carpooling with the whole quartet).

by JimT on Sep 12, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

Odd how the author's employer plans to get people out of cars by putting them onto streetcars which will dump out at an especially crowded point of the Metrorail system. And how the same plan will take away the only efficient/reasonably safe bike route from Columbia Pike to the Potomac River bridges, with no comparably safe/efficient replacement. But that's not Mr. Crim's fault; he works for Lexus Liberal politicians more interested in developer campaign dollars/"smart growth" accolades/side jobs from developers rather than working for efficient, common sense, 21st century solutions. These solutions include all 8-car trains, more frequent & bigger buses with real lane/bridge priority, and bike infrastructure that is separated from cars for all Arlington commuting routes.

by Brad on Sep 12, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

Ride New Orleans? They are doing good work in N.O. Welcome

by h st ll on Sep 12, 2013 4:33 pm • linkreport

The quarterly Vital Signs Report for WMATA, discussed at today's WMATA Customer Services and Operations Committee meeting, provides six months worth of data on railcar loading during peak periods. It is posted on the WMATA website under Board of Directors Meetings and Agendas.

by Steve Strauss on Sep 12, 2013 4:57 pm • linkreport


The streetcar will be putting people onto the same metro stations that all of the Columbia pike buses do.

They're going to build bike boulevards to help make up for streetcar construction, meanwhile you can still ride on Columbia pike but with a little more care, not like Columbia pike is a dream to ride a bike on already.

All 8 car trains is a goal of metro but that requires a commitment from metro and the jurisdictions.

I don't know anything specific about bus priority in Arlington but the bridges at least are all "owned" by DC so that weds coordination.

Besides the boulevards I mentioned where is the evidence that Arlington isn't improving its cycling infrastructure?

And why are the goals about the streetcar and your suggestions incompatible?

by drumz on Sep 12, 2013 4:58 pm • linkreport

Good article!

Commuter Connections does a lot of good TDM work in the DC area:

Particularly innovative is the guaranteed ride home program, giving transit commuters a free ride if there is a mid-day emergency and the would be afraid a trip on transit would take too long (or might not be available, for many peak-only services).

by recyclist on Sep 12, 2013 4:58 pm • linkreport

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