Recently, the Austin Chamber of Commerce released its 2013 Mobility Report, in which it reported on its sponsorship of research by TTI that quantified a specific set of strategies targeting congestion. The research shows the predicted effect of six strategies on the Travel Time Index — the commonly used measure that compares congested travel time to uncongested travel time (peak time of day vs. off-peak times of the day). The report correctly identifies that to reduce congestion, it will take an “all-of-the-above” set of strategies that includes building more concrete and steel infrastructure, more transit options, more biking and walking, significantly increasing telecommuting (and teleshopping), having flexible work hours so that commuters can travel outside of the peak periods, and growing more efficiently — in short, living closer to work, shopping, and recreation areas.
First, the timeline. The chart depicts clearly that if we hesitate to act now, the problem grows worse — day by day. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization predicts that the population will grow to more than 4.1 million (2040) from its current 1.7 million (2010) — that’s more than double. There’s little time to ponder the actions needed to address the issues that growth is bringing to the region. But, the chart also depicts that the sooner we act on these strategies, the more benefit we gain in the future (the wedges get wider).
Next, the wedge chart shows that the long-range regional transportation plan — the concrete and steel construction that is vitally needed — doesn’t get us completely where we want to be. And it will cost the public coffers $25 billion (give or take a few) to build it (and probably take more than 20 years to do so).
Now take a look at the other pieces of the chart. How much do these strategies cost the taxpayer? Or perhaps the question is: how much are these alternative strategies going to save the taxpayer? Telecommuting, for instance has a multitude of both hard and soft cost benefits. It lowers the total taxpayer dollars needed to build more roads and transit at the same time that it lowers the cost to the commuter in gasoline, auto operating cost and travel time. Tele-traveling leaves room on the road for vehicles that need the space to do business, like service and delivery trucks and vans. It requires technology that benefits the information technology sector. It saves space in parking garages and office buildings. There’s less exposure to potential auto collisions, and collectively, telecommuting improves safety. And it lowers emissions, improving air quality, and lowers greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Is it time to start incorporating communications technology into the transportation planning process, seeing that it can have such significant benefits?
This chart shows that there is about a 30 percent piece that government can do for us directly in transportation (the plan to build more roads and public transportation using our tax dollars). And then there’s a 70 percent set of wedges that we can do for ourselves. We, and our employers, can have a significant impact by making choices about how and when we travel. These pieces of the wedge chart represent the actions that individual citizens and businesses can pursue in taking responsibility for doing something about congestion.
But, as the chamber report correctly points out, we know that these strategies build upon each other. The whole set of strategies allows for a flexible transportation system full of options, where people can efficiently conduct business, acquire goods and services, go to school and get to entertainment venues we like — making efficient transportation choices depending on our daily circumstances.
Shouldn’t we also be putting transportation dollars toward these other, highly cost effective solutions? Maybe there are ways that transportation dollars can be used to enhance people’s ability to shift their commute times or telecommute? Can we find creative ways to pay directly for improvements to communication technology that has a significant impact on transportation?
Also, let’s look at the Y-axis on the left side of the wedge chart. In this research, we looked only at a specific measure of congestion, the Travel Time Index. In reality, the performance of our plan has to be measured against a variety of goals, including the “Triple Bottom Line” of sustainability: social equity, the environment and the economy. Are our plans going to get us to the goals we desire?
Finally, it’s important to note that TTI’s Austin wedge chart research shows an experiment using a travel model and a specific set of demand-management strategies. There are a lot of other strategies that were not considered, like building even more infrastructure, or a variety of demand-oriented actions such as increasing carpooling, ridesharing apps, and bike and car sharing. The wedges of various strategies will need to fit together, some bigger than others, to reach the transportation system performance we set as our goal.
As I sit in my comfy chair at my home office, telecommuting today with TTI, I am thinking about what performance planning is all about. In the end, the chamber report has it right — it takes a comprehensive set of strategies and a thoughtful, assertive planning process to get us to the transportation system we desire.
Tom Williams is a research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.