Blog The Impact Of “Commuting With Benefits”

In a summary of its updated “Commuting In America” study, the Transportation Research Board reports that what might be called “commuting with benefits” is growing, as more drivers make more stops for other purposes on the way to and from work. Commutes are getting more complex, and the trend could lead to still more cars on the road rather than fewer. Planners, many politicians, and environmental advocates would like to see more transit use, but especially where key suburban commuters are targeted, that will depend on speed, frequency and convenience of service.
How does “trip chaining” play out presently here in Central Puget Sound? Driving back from your job in Bellevue to your affordable home in Maple Valley, you stop for groceries at the Renton Wal-Mart, then in Maple Valley at the dry cleaners. On to pick up one child in after-school care, and another a mile away as her dance lesson ends; she’s been ferried there in the family’s second vehicle by her other, work-at-home parent, who then departed for a carefully-timed business meeting in a local coffee shop. Multiply across the region, and stir.
From the “Commuting In Amercia” fact sheet:

This ‘trip chain’ increases the efficiency of overall travel but has the effect of increasing the number of non-work related trips occurring in the peak period.

The effects of “trip chaining” are also discussed in the Dec. 31, 2006 final report of the (Central Puget Sound) Regional Transportation Commission study group to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state legislature, on pages 20-21:

…the majority of automobile trips are for…other than directly travelling from a residence to a place of work (during) peak hour because “trip chaining” commuters make stops in route to work or home; for example, to day care, school and shopping destinations. Increased travel is also a function of the increase in two-worker households, more dispersed trip patterns, and growth in areas that are accessible only by private auto.

Yet transit or carpooling can work for some commuters during peak hours on heavily-travelled corridors. The RTC report on p. 29 (Figure 3-15) notes that according to 2000 WSDOT data, during morning rush, 37 percent of person trips in peak direction on I-5 at Southcenter were HOV or transit; along with 23 percent on I-90 at Eastgate; and 30 percent on State Route 520 at 140th Ave. N.E. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but commuters lacking neatly compact urban lifestyles will do what they must to get around.
Faster and more frequent transit in major corridors connecting suburbs to suburbs, combined with ample park and ride lots at both ends could help get some of these drivers out of their cars on some days. That transit solution could take the form of a Metropolitan Puget Sound Bus Rapid Transit System, along the lines of that proposed by Donald L. Padelford of Seattle. The vehicles might look something like that pictured above, right; and would run in dedicated lanes. We’re a ways from any such decision, however, with a fall ballot measure looming to expand Sound Transit’s light rail. Should that fail, it will be back to the drawing board, and surveys on transit preferences could help guide subsequent proposals to voters.
Commuting isn’t mainly a spoke-and-hub proposition anymore. The TRB’s “Commuting In America” study reports that trips from suburb to suburb now account for almost half of all metro-area commuting in the U.S., and for almost two-thirds of job growth. There is also sharp growth in the number of commuters who leave their home county for work. It’s some 34 million daily, 85 percent more than in 1980. Solo drivers account for 80 percent of commutes, and carpooling and transit for most of the rest, in the nine largest U.S. metro areas, of population five million or greater. Go-it-alone drivers comprise 90 percent of commutes elsewhere in the U.S.
Yet TRB says “there are signs of saturation in the use of the private vehicle,” as gains from 1990 to 2000 were markedly less than from 1980 to 1990. In five U.S. metro areas, solo drivers actually declined as a percentage of commuters from 1990 to 2000. The changes were exceedingly modest, though; less than one percent in four of the regions. In metro Seattle, that decline was greater than anywhere else, 1.5 percent.
A key indicator for any metro region, according to the authors of “Commuting In America,” is the joint share of carpooling and transit in daily commutes. Few areas are above the desired 20 percent benchmark, which must be calculated based on all work-related commutes within a region, not just during peak hours, in one direction, and at selected locations.
Central Puget Sound of course faces the need for new or expanded roadways to replace two dangerously earthquake-prone and outmoded facilities, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and State Route 520 floating bridge. Across the region, other, congested corridors demand expansion and investment, as well. With funds scarce and taxpayers wary of shouldering too great a burden, public-private parterships and tolls need to be closely considered to help foot the bill. Better prioritization and coordination would result if a regional superagency were empowered to plan and order projects, and develop funding strategies for transportation across Snohomish, King, Pierce – and perhaps Kitsap – counties.
Expanding transit market share effectively and economically necessitates a market-driven emphasis on faster travel times, service frequency in key corridors, and more seamless connections – which, combined, can draw the necessary volume to yield rational per-user costs for equipment, infrastructure, operations and maintenance.
We should take a mode-agnostic approach and evaluate differing technologies such as Bus Rapid Transit and light rail through carefully calibrated computer modeling to see which delivers the better return on investment. Additionally, now-free carpool (HOV) lanes could be converted into HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes where solo drivers gain access in return for a time-variable fee (costing more during rush hours) which is charged to their accounts via windshield transponder technology.
This will require focus and political leadership heretofore lacking. This much is clear. The tired and polarizing “roads versus transit” debate is a road to nowhere. We need smart, cost-effective investment in both roads and transit, which have the actual effect of reducing congestion and giving commuters real choices.