Getting off the Road

Rail will help, roads will help – but so will your decision not to drive today

Getting off the Road
Photo by John Anderson

Say you're broke.

Say you had an emergency root canal and your bank account balance has sunk dangerously low. You have a couple of choices. Either you make more money: Take on a second shift? Pawn your watch? Or you make your existing income go further, by cutting spending. Drop cable, cancel the gym membership, skip the lattes, and make drip coffee at home.

The quickest approach, and the solution that's already in your hands, is trimming your budget. Maybe you'll get a better job in the future, but you can be more frugal starting today.

It turns out the principles of personal budgeting also apply to traffic congestion. Viewed as a budget, Austin's roads are stretched to their limit. Building more roads – where there's room – is one solution, as is squeezing more efficiency out of the current system. But a more immediate one is easing the pressure on existing roads. And that's called "travel demand management," or TDM.

"It puts the solution more in the hands of residents," says Lauren Albright, Austin community manager for the carpooling app Carma. "When we talk to residents about Carma they're very receptive to the message, because they're so frustrated with transportation and traffic in Austin. They like the idea of taking the problem into their own hands, by taking extra cars off the road."

TDM happens through executive-level decisions, such as major employers allowing telecommuting, and individual choices, like an employee's decision to take the bus on Tuesdays instead of driving. Austin doesn't have a central command center for TDM – the city, CAMPO, TxDOT, and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce all encourage it – although a local nonprofit called Movability Austin has the express purpose of helping Downtown employers implement TDM. It's not mandated by any level of government, though if Austin slips into nonattainment of federal air quality standards, that could change. Right now TDM strategies are voluntary, and focus on cost savings, quality of life, and mitigating the effects of congestion on Austin's booming economy.

TDM is a way out of the congestion nightmare predicted last year by the Texas A&M Trans­portation Institute (TTI), a research division of Texas A&M University, which tested possible long-term congestion fixes for I-35. Its Mobility Investment Priorities project modeled eight scenarios, including a baseline that added no capacity to I-35 but built all the roads and transit projects included in the existing 2035 Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization plan. If only the baseline projects are built, I-35 will be completely swamped by 2035, and travel across Austin during rush hour will take more than three hours, with heavy traffic continuing as late as 10pm some places.

Even the best-performing scenario – adding a pair of express lanes to the existing freeway, which is the option closest to TxDOT's current plans – netted a 5% reduction in vehicle-hours traveled (a measure of congestion). Wondering what would make a significant difference in congestion, the TTI team started modeling other options, experimentally – no matter how unrealistic. Its results were, on the one hand, a massive construction project: adding six tolled express lanes between SH 45 North and SH 45 South. On the other: a hybrid strategy that added the lane pair and aggressively reduced demand for the road. By increasing telecommuting, car- and vanpooling, online education, online shopping, transit, bike and pedestrian trips, and moving trips outside of rush hour, the team produced a model of I-35 in which traffic once again flowed freely. All of these are accepted strategies for reducing traffic, but again, they're not linked to any specific policies in Austin – TTI just modeled them to see what would ease congestion.

Meet the Enemy

The takeaway from the TTI report, its authors wrote, is that Central Texas can't ease congestion through road construction alone. This is partly because of the principle of "latent demand" – essentially the idea that if you build it, they will come. Chandra Bhat, director of UT's Center for Transpor­tation Research (CTR), explains it this way: When a new lane or road opens, people use it for trips they hadn't made before the road opened, because it seems so convenient. Eventually, the new lanes fill up and the road returns to the level of congestion it had before the expansion. The time it takes to return to preconstruction congestion levels has been shrinking, Bhat says. And in Aus­tin, "Essentially, the growth is happening so fast that it's impossible to build our way out of traffic congestion."

With a net gain of 110 new residents a day, who bring with them about 70 cars, Austin is growing too fast for its roads to accommodate the traffic. And according to the 2012 American Community Survey, 76% of workers in Central Texas drove alone to work each day.

The other key lesson from the TTI report, says City of Austin Transportation Director Rob Spillar, is that 86% of I-35 traffic in Austin is local – trips originating or ending in the Austin metro area. TTI concluded that, contrary to armchair wisdom, any congestion solution predicated on rerouting through traffic around town – such as to SH 130 – will fall short. "We've seen the enemy, and the enemy is us," Spillar says.

Bhat and Spillar emphasize that Austin has to take an "all of the above" approach to its traffic problems, building roads and transit and promoting TDM. But the latter can be accomplished much more cheaply and quickly, and without a single vote or traffic cone. "Any of these big infrastructure projects, whether it be rail, or improvements to I-35, or improvements to Lamar – they'll take six to 10 years to get on the ground," Spillar says. "In the meantime, we need to get 40,000 more people Downtown for the new employment that's being constructed right now."

Time and Place

So how can that happen?

"The decisions to participate in any of the demand management programs have to be made by and large in the private sector and by individuals, so it's not something that can be forced upon people, and probably shouldn't be," says Randy Machemehl, a professor of transportation engineering at CTR. "But it has been slow to be incorporated as a result of that."

The Austin version of the space required to accommodate the same number of people in cars, on foot, or on bicycles.
The Austin version of the space required to accommodate the same number of people in cars, on foot, or on bicycles. (Photos courtesy of Movability Austin)

A couple of local initiatives are trying to speed up the process. Movability Austin, formed in 2011, is a transportation management association (TMA) with 35 member organizations. TMAs, a type of nonprofit that's found across the country, help employers and commuters reduce car trips in a particular geographic area. And the Greater Austin Chamber of Com­merce, which last year engaged TTI to model traffic-reduction strategies, is encouraging its members to adopt at least one demand-reduction practice. "One of the biggest challenges our local businesses face is traffic," says Regional Infrastructure Senior Vice President Jeremy Martin. "We're not asking you to implement it all, but if traffic is a concern, we ask that you own the solution and evaluate the opportunities you have to implement mobile workforce, flexible scheduling, buying transit passes for employees, or evaluating your location to reduce the length of trips."

One solution is for companies to stop asking all their employees to physically arrive at work by 9am and leave around 5pm. There are other times of day, Spillar points out, when major arteries are relatively clear. If travel could be distributed more evenly throughout the day, the roads could better handle the demand. Or travel could be eliminated entirely with telecommuting.

The more idea-based an economy, the more suitable it is for telecommuting. While Central Texas, with 7% of workers telecommuting, is a national leader in the practice (also called "teleworking" or "mobile workforce"), that option isn't widely used by Down­town employers. Companies located Downtown pay a premium for office space there for a specific reason, says Glenn Gad­bois, executive director of Movability Aus­tin. They want to be close to Downtown colleagues, restaurants, and social spaces, and "that can't be easily substituted with a strong and seriously productive telework policy," he says. This is even more true of northeast Downtown's anticipated "Innova­tion Zone," beside the medical school complex, whose calling card will be the multiplication of ideas fostered by density.

But Dell and AMD, located outside Down­town, do use telecommuting. In the past, says Justin Murrill, AMD's global sustain­a­bil­ity manager, the company saw roughly 10-20% of its employees teleworking at least once a week. For over a year AMD has run a pilot program to see if employees could work from home more frequently, or if perhaps some didn't need a workspace on the Southwest Parkway campus at all. The company developed criteria for assessing who could telework and a training for both employees and managers, and its follow-up surveys have shown positive feedback from both groups.

Embracing teleworking does require a shift to a performance-based management model, Murrill says. "It's my opinion that, in general, if you're used to seeing somebody sitting at their desk 9 to 5, and instead you're basing their performance on the quality and timeliness of their deliverables, that's a very different management style. It's clear there are certain instances of where teleworking is valued and wanted, and it delivers environmental and parking benefits – and then there are some concerns any company has about teleworking being misapplied."

Other options for employers include flexible hours (one employee on a project works from 7-4, and another works from 9-6), or related strategies like requiring core office hours (employees have flexibility to work from home as long as they're in the office from 10-3, when team meetings are scheduled), or allowing compressed workweeks (an employee works four 10-hour shifts), as some TxDOT departments do.

Filling Empty Seats

If employees still have to come to the office, they could use fewer vehicles to get there. Carpooling is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, in part due to new apps that help workers find a ride. And the math is easy: "If every person driving alone in Austin offered an empty seat to another person, we could cut the number of cars on the road in half," says Lauren Albright of Carma, which launched in Austin in February.

Carma frames the congestion problem as a waste of empty seats rather than crowded roads. And it has a point: Carma cites census data suggesting nearly 938,000 empty seats languish in solo commuters' cars. To overcome the obstacle of finding someone to ride with, the app offers a system to match potential carpool members, whose numbers reached 1,000 this month. Users enter their typical commute schedule and route and are matched with other people who are located nearby and have similar schedules. While it can be used on the fly – say you took the bus Downtown and need to get back home – the service is focused more on regular commutes than one-time rides. Unlike services like Lyft and Uber, its drivers are not allowed to make a profit.

The company came to Austin on a federal grant to test its technology for verifying carpools and offering them free rides on toll roads. If Carma members carpool on 183A or the Manor Expressway – toll roads that are part of the pilot program – their toll costs are reimbursed. The company, which is partnering with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, tracks carpoolers' travel via the app and the GPS on their phones. After comparing its data with the toll vendor's, Carma reimburses the driver's toll costs.

Commute Solutions, a CAMPO initiative, also offers a ride-matching service as part of its two-year-old myCommuteSolu­tions site, which counts 2,800 members. Program Coordinator Julie Mazur has also established custom subsites for businesses like Samsung that allow their employees to find carpools within the company.

The RideScout app offers similar features, though it's meant to be used as much on the fly as it is for regular commutes. The app shows travelers a host of options for reaching their destination – driving alone, bikeshare, bus, carshare, taxi, walking, or carpooling with whoever's nearby.

To reduce stranger danger, Carma and RideScout offer the option to search only within certain groups, such as residents of the same neighborhood or employees of the same large company. MyCommuteSolutions lets users filter potential commute partners by gender and whether they smoke, and it doesn't show users' exact home or work addresses.

Central Texans who want to share rides without sharing their personal vehicle can participate in Capital Metro's RideShare vanpooling program, which provides vans and underwrites some of their lease cost. Typically one person does the driving, and new members can find a vanpool (there are 122 of them) via Capital Metro's website.

Breaking the Chains

One other solution has less to do with how people travel, and more about where they're going. Those patterns are different than they were 50 years ago.

Bhat says Austin's challenge is not just its population growth, but the composition of that growth. Demographic trends show an increase in the number of single-adult households and single-parent families; the "traditional" family with two adults, one of whom works outside the home, is less common. The practical effect on traffic is a longer rush hour, as workers squeeze more errands into their commutes, a practice engineers call "chaining." In past decades the nonworking spouse could often go to the bank, grocery store, and cleaners in the middle of the day while her partner was at work. Today, more single parents run these errands and pick up kids from daycare or school after work. More adults in dual-earner households are running errands, and sometimes picking up the kids, as part of their commute. And young, single adults tend to go out – to the gym, to happy hour – rather than going straight home. All of these demographic shifts affect traffic patterns, Bhat says.

Getting off the Road

One of the most macro-level steps suggested for combating congestion is shifting land use patterns to create more "centers" that combine jobs, housing, and services that would otherwise be "chained" into the commute. Placing essential services like groceries and child care near transit stops also takes pressure off the commute, since people could pick up the kids, the dry cleaning, or dinner on their walk home from the transit stop, or on their drive home from the Park & Ride.

The Chamber's Jeremy Martin says the CodeNEXT Land Development Code revision is an opportunity to make that happen. "When it comes to locating more jobs near existing housing, and vice versa, our land development code does not allow for flexibility and the diversity of uses necessary to shorten those work trips," he says, and points for an example of success to the 2004 University Neighborhood Overlay that encouraged more density in West Campus. Demand for housing near UT was very high, "and allowing for the market to build to that demand has allowed students to move back near campus" from areas like Riverside Drive, reducing commuter trip length, Martin says.

"The takeaway message is that transportation cannot stand on its own," says Bhat. "Let's build our communities and design our land use in such a way that it reinforces transportation services."

Parking policies, too, can have an effect on commuter behavior. Plentiful, inexpensive parking encourages driving, while limited parking encourages other modes of transit. "The general philosophy on parking and travel demand is that people are more likely to drive when there's a free parking space waiting for them at the end of their journey," explains Leah Bojo, a policy aide to Council Member Chris Riley, who sponsored a successful 2012 resolution to remove minimum parking requirements Downtown.

A lack of parking is one of the biggest reasons Downtown employers contact Movability Austin about alternative transportation options. In such situations, companies might encourage, and even subsidize, their employees to buy a bus or rail pass or a carshare membership instead of a parking space. Even businesses that have historically offered parking as an employee benefit are switching to parking cash-out programs as Downtown parking spots become more scarce.

The UT campus is an extreme example of parking scarcity: The campus has about 15,000 parking spaces and a daytime population of 70,000 students, faculty, and staff. Parking permits start at $142 for faculty and staff, but a Capital Metro bus pass is an automatic employee benefit. The campus also contracts with Zipcar, runs a 1,500-member carpool program, counts 10,000 active bicycle registrants, and works to improve the pedestrian experience from West Campus to encourage students to walk.

Find What Drives You

Implementing any of these strategies requires a careful look at people's barriers to altering their commutes as well as the motivations to surmount those barriers. AMD's Justin Murrill says that one of the first steps in the company's redesign of its Go Green – Commute program was a survey of all Austin employees about their obstacles and motivations for using different modes of transit. They then found incentives to help push past people's resistance – a ride-matching tool to help form carpools; bike racks, showers, and a reward system of store credit at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop for bike commuters.

Identifying these barriers and finding ways around them is Movability Austin's bread and butter. When Movability surveys companies, it typically finds that 15-20% of employees have already figured out an alternative commute. Another 20-25% are interested in alternatives but aren't really using them – "and that's our sweet spot," says Executive Director Gadbois, adding that his group doesn't spend any time trying to force a change on those who aren't interested. Movability then acts as a one-stop shop to help receptive employees find their options. This means everything from sitting down with one person and mapping a safe bike route with minimal hills, to talking with an employer about offering transit passes instead of garage parking.

People are reluctant to give up their car keys for a host of reasons. They have kids who need to be dropped at school and picked up from practice. They have errands to run. They enjoy the time alone in the car. They just don't like change.

Some of these are easier to surmount than others. Capital Metro's Guaranteed Ride Home program can assuage the fears of transit or carpool users who worry about an emergency occurring on a day they don't have the car. And for Downtown workers, at least, B-cycle, Zipcar, and Car2Go offer ways to run errands in the middle of the day, eliminating them from the rush hour "chain."

One of the biggest barriers is sheer anxiety about trying something new. (How do I pay the fare on the bus? Where do I sit? How do I tell the driver I want to get off at this stop?) Start small, Gadbois and Mazur say: Plan your trip on Capital Metro's website or with a bike map, and try it on a weekend when you have plenty of time. If you're still hesitant, you can indicate on your profile with myCommuteSolutions that you'd like to be paired with an experienced bike or transit commuter who can show you how.

But why try taking the bus to work in the first place? Gadbois says the best motivators for any sort of change are internal. Your average commuter may not be particularly motivated to improve air quality, but he might like the cost savings associated with carpooling, or the exercise from the bike ride, or the time gained to read on the train. Part of Gadbois' job is to help people identify their own motivators by pushing them to try an alternative commute the first few times, and often that process involves competition.

Movability members like HomeAway "gamify" the testing of new commute options by setting up contests. Last May, HomeAway challenged its employees to bike to work as much as possible and rewarded the participants with breakfast tacos and happy hour (the winners got prizes, too). Commute Solutions runs contests through its commute-logging tool; AMD celebrates whatever global campus has the most participation in bike-to-work day (Fort Collins, 40%). The point in each exercise is to introduce people to their options and help them find a motivation for continuing to use them.

Once an employee finds a new option that works, the company needs to support that, says Thomas Butler, the Downtown Austin Alliance's streetscapes and transportation director. "It's not just giving them transportation options, it's giving them support services to enable them to use those options. It's not just saying, 'You can bike to work,' it's putting in place the bike infrastructure that makes cycling safe; it's putting in showers at the end of their trips; it's putting in bike lockers so people can lock up their bikes and feel they're safe." And it's not an all-or-nothing proposition, says Gadbois: "We really want people to do it one day a week, do it two days a week. It's not black or white. You don't just have to be a bicyclist, you don't just have to be a bus rider."

To return to the budget metaphor: If you're trying to save money, you don't have to brown-bag it every day for the rest of your life. But if you do so consistently twice a week, the savings will add up. The same principle applies to congestion.

"I tell my class we could solve the congestion problem overnight, and we wouldn't have to build anything or buy anything," says CTR's Machemehl. "They say, 'Wow, this guy is a genius.' No, I'm just talking about carpooling. If you put two people in every car instead of one, that's easy math."

And it's immediate. For Julie Mazur of CAMPO, "There's lots of good projects going on – Project Connect, Mobility 35 – but that's the future. This is something you can do today."

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News, travel demand management, Lauren Albright, Carma, Texas Department of Transportation, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Mobility Investment Priorities, Rob Spillar, Chandra Bhat, Randy Machemehl, Movability Austin, Jeremy Martin, Glenn Gadbois, teleworking, RideScout, CodeNEXT, Capital Metro, Julie Mazur

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