We live in a growing region of 5.5 million people, with a thriving local economy compared to most. In order to keep our economy strong and protect our quality of life, we need to make sure we have a robust, safe and reliable transportation network that meets all of our daily needs, not just the needs of commuters.
In recent rankings from the Texas Transportation Institute, the Washington region has surpassed Los Angeles in average time wasted due to congestion delays. We are now ranked first as the most congested metropolitan area in the U.S. With area residents now losing more than 80 hours a year to traffic delays, we can now proudly say, we’re number one! Unfortunately, none of us want to be number-one in congestion. To find effective solutions, however, we need to understand some key concepts in transportation planning.
The 10 Critical Functions of a Regional Transportation Network
- Non-Commuting Personal Trips — BY FAR — the largest portion of daily trips (shopping, errands, recreation, sports, entertainment, children’s activities, entertainment, etc.)
- Non-Commuting Business & Commercial Trips (sales calls, business meetings, networking events, client visits, etc.)
- Commuting Trips (travel between home and work)
- Interstate Through-trips (passenger vehicles and freight traveling through our area)
- Local and Regional Movement of Goods and Services (consumer and business services; construction, landscaping, plumbing, HVAC & home improvement contractors; computer technicians; wholesale distributors; furniture & appliances deliveries and installation; etc.)
- Education (school bus fleets, individual trips to and from schools, universities and related educational activities)
- Postal and Delivery Services (USPS, FedEx, UPS, couriers, etc.)
- Taxi, Shuttle Bus, Van and Limousine Services
- Tourism (airport travel, rental cars, vacations, etc.)
- Emergency Vehicles (police, fire & rescue, ambulances, tow trucks)
Commuting is Just One of the Key Challenges – and Only 25% of Daily Trips
Commuting only accounts for about 25% of the roughly 20 million daily trips in our region. When people without any professional background in traffic engineering talk about transportation, they often make the mistake of assuming our main challenge is accommodating daily commuting trips, but this is simply not the case. A significant portion of commuting trips in our region (10% to 15% of them) use mass transit on a regular basis. This represents a significant number of trips that would otherwise be making our roads and highways more congested, so providing transit service is critical to serving this portion of the travel market, especially during peak periods. However, expanding transit service to meet the needs of commuters is only a small piece of the larger puzzle when it comes to solving our region’s overall traffic problems, and it clearly is no panacea. The reason is obvious if you just do the math, and it has little to do with the availability of service and a great deal to do with the nature of the trips we make.
Most of the Trips we Make are Non-Commuting
75% of all daily trips are non-commuting trips, including over half of the trips made during rush-hour. This fact is of critical importance, as very few of these non-commuting trips can be diverted to mass transit or other non-automobile modes in suburban communities like ours. This has little to do with the availability of alternatives; it is mainly because of the nature of the trips. For example, exactly 0% of interstate through-travel along the I-95 corridor from Maine to Florida — which accounts for 30-40% of Beltway traffic on a given day — would ever use our local mass transit system or walk (for obvious reasons). Likewise, 0% of goods and services, 0% of FedEx deliveries, 0% of emergency vehicles, school buses, or postal workers and under 5% of the business and personal non-commuting trips we make can ever use transit. This is because these trips are highly variable and often involve multiple stops, tight time constraints, and the ability to carry heavy things (groceries, tools and equipment, product samples, small children, etc.). The vast majority of these trips will always be more quickly and easily made in a car or truck. This is one of the hard, cold realities of transportation planning and no amount of wishful thinking can change this. Therefore, new road AND transit capacity BOTH must be a big part of the solution. At the same time, better and more sustainable land-use patterns that promote more pedestrian and bike trips, and reduce future growth in travel demand on our roads and bridges, though not a panacea, are also a small part of the solution. All modes are critical to our future quality of life and all should be seen as part of an interconnected multi-modal system, not pitted against one another in some pointless theoretical debate.
30% to 40% of the Traffic on our Region’s Major Highways is Interstate Through-traffic
The fact that our region includes the nation’s capital and sits on the most heavily traveled interstate corridor, I-95, is a critical factor that must be accommodated in our regional and local plans. When the major highways become severely congested, as they are today after decades of under-investment, the backups spread to local arterials as travelers seek cut-through routes, and the entire system becomes overwhelmed. There simply is not enough capacity in the network to handle current or future travel demand in our region.
Transit Provides Only Part of the Solution – But an Important Part
The Greater Washington region ranks 2nd among all major metropolitan areas in the U.S. in transit ridership. Despite recent problems and declining ridership on Metrorail, each day, over 1 million area residents ride our Metro system (including rail and bus riders). Traffic would obviously be much worse otherwise. Yet, our transit system was designed primarily to move people into and out of DC. Metro does not offer direct, high-speed transit service between major suburban activity centers in Maryland — from Bethesda to Silver Spring, Greenbelt to New Carrollton, New Carrollton to National Harbor, or Shady Grove to Clarksburg, for example. None of these suburb-to-suburb corridors have adequate transit connections to meet current and future demand. Adding these key links to our transit system – through a combination of light-rail, bus-rapid-transit (BRT), and express-bus service; and investing in the core capacity, safety and maintenance of our Metro system can significantly increase transit ridership and take more pressure off our crowded roads in the future.
The Washington Region’s Transit Mode Share is Significantly Higher than Any Other City in the US (except New York City). Our region already out-performs other cities planners like to point to as “transit oriented” including: Chicago, IL; Boston, MA; San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR; or even Boulder, CO. We are also a national leader in telecommuting and carpooling. Yet overcrowding on Metrorail; a lack of core capacity, connectivity and parking; and poor system performance due to inadequate maintenance are significantly limiting the number of people who could be using transit on a daily basis. We can do better.
Our Main Challenge: An Outdated, Under-built Regional Highway Network
The Washington region has fewer highway lane miles per capita than most American cities of our size. Roughly 95% of the daily trips in Maryland, and almost 90% of the daily trips in our region, are made on our road network, including half the transit trips. To meet that demand, regional planners designed a robust highway network for the Washington Region that included three beltways, multiple bridge crossings, and had I-95 running continuously through the District. I-95 was never completed, only one of the three beltways, and not all of the planned bridges were built. This has left several key corridors with major traffic bottlenecks that still need to be addressed. On the positive side, the area’s Metro system was fully built out and is now being expanded to new areas like Dulles Airport. However, a significant region-wide capacity deficit exists in many major travel corridors linking our major employment and population centers together, and this is the root cause of the severe and growing congestion area residents face every day.
We Can Fix This
Recent studies by the Transportation Planning Board and others show there are solutions that work. Investing in a balanced set of transit and road improvements that connect our region together and provide the new capacity we need in key corridors, will get us moving again and dramatically reduce congestion for years to come. Planners correctly point out that better land-use and other “demand-reduction” policies are also part of the solution. Yet, traffic modeling studies consistently show that this has only a very small effect on future traffic volumes. The best strategy going forward is a multi-faceted approach that combines “managing demand” and addressing our severe “capacity deficit.” Making these investments must be a top priority.
The Choice We Face is Clear: Invest in Transportation Now, or Bring our Local Economy to a Grinding Halt.
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