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Rethink existing transportation systems with Transportation Demand Managemen

Posted August 17, 2017 in Articles

Author: Paul Mackie

Jeffrey Tumlin is a leading thinker – a mover-and-shaker – on incorporating “transportation demand management” principles into the many ways planners are rethinking the ways we’ve built our cities.

I didn’t attend the Association for Commuter Transportation’s recent annual conference in New Orleans, but several of our readers told me how his keynote speech was inspiring that I had some followup questions. Here are his answers, which I think are very compelling ideas for business and city leaders and planners to easily grab onto and should show TDM experts how they can proceed with exciting ideas to apply to their own communities.

(Tumlin is principal and director of strategy at planning consultant Nelson/Nygaard. One of his most-recent projects was to help Oakland start a department of transportation. He said one of his guiding philosophies was that a DOT is not about building more roads because that only “works for about five minutes, until people ask ‘why not move to the bigger house five minutes farther away?’ He said the way to run a DOT is to collect and use really smart data to see how re-engineering solutions can happen within existing infrastructure. Sounds a lot like TDM, right?)

Mobility Lab: When cities have nowhere to expand and they’re out of space to build big infrastructure projects, how do you see TDM as the best and most cost-effective option?

Jeffrey Tumlin: Infrastructure is supply-side economics. TDM is demand-side. Too much emphasis on either side causes problems. Successful cities and companies provide a careful balance between the two, knowing that TDM’s job is to help us make the most efficient use of our capital investments. For cities that want to grow – and don’t want to rip out neighborhoods for new highways – TDM is an essential tool for moving more people in the same amount of road space.

Fixed transit has so many problems and needs to up its game. How should TDM get into that game?

Thriving high-capacity transit is essential for the economic future of cities, and becomes even more so as autonomous vehicles enter the market. But in their current form, conventional public transit agencies are a failed business model. They have no control over their operating environment (streets), they are not allowed to capture the value they create, and they rarely measure what they’re best at.

As technology and demographics change, public transit agencies make sense only in partnership with cities and developers. This doesn’t necessary mean organizational restructuring, but it does require an attitude shift by all the players. TDM can help transit by making it more efficient and relevant. Columbus, Ohio recently realized that it’s cheaper to give all downtown employees free bus passes than it is to build parking for those employees. But such a deal only works if cities, businesses, and transit collaborate, and only if they think like TDM people think.

How should TDM and transit get into the AV game?

AVs are going to require a more radical attitude shift by transit agencies if they hope to survive. Once Uber and Lyft eliminate their drivers, they’ll cost about the same per mile as driving yourself, and most urban trips will cost about the same as bus fare. Why on earth would anyone wait for the bus if a driverless Uber offers door-to-door convenience and far higher quality? While congestion-protected buses in Seattle are thriving, like urban rail in most regions, Uber and Lyft are already creating a drop-off in bus ridership where transit is stuck in congestion.

Some agencies are adapting by eliminating poorly performing routes and replacing that coverage with subsidized TNCs [transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft]. But a dirty secret in the transit industry is the cost of retiree healthcare and pensions, which is paid in part by contributions from the current workforce. Lose too many of today’s workers, and those retirement packages go bankrupt. How many public transit agencies will enter the service-cut death spiral before most riders flee? And what happens to city street and highway congestion when every 80-passenger urban bus is replaced by 20 to 80 driverless Ubers?

Most transit agencies will ignore the problem until it is too late, like the taxi industry did [with TNCs]. A few savvy ones will recognize that their survival requires new leadership and partnerships, and they’ll be spurred on by cities, who know that an unregulated AV future is a disaster for their economies. This means recognizing that the best urban market for AVs is bus rapid transit (BRT), because we already have the computing power to allow high-capacity AV buses to operate safely in dedicated rights of way. It means seeing that AV BRT can operate every two minutes, 24 hours a day, at nearly no marginal cost, and move 10 times as many people per lane as a fleet of Google pods.

It also means understanding that the job category “bus driver” will not exist 20 years from now – any more than “elevator operator” does today. Transit agencies and labor may prefer to avoid this reality, but avoidance today means a lot of people will lose their livelihoods and pensions some years from now. The technological shift will happen slowly enough that thoughtful leadership now can ensure no one is thrown into poverty, and that transit takes on a new primary role of delivering real capacity in dense urban corridors.

TDM planners can help cities and transit agencies avoid the nightmare scenario by doing what we do best: Bringing people together, explaining how different scenarios play out, and asking what capital investments and management techniques result in the best outcomes.

You mentioned something along the lines that people who ride bikes aren’t better than other people, they are just using up less geometric space. Why does that seem like a difficult concept to grasp for people who don’t ride bikes (and maybe some who do)?

The whole simplistic bikes versus cars war seems to arise from three key sources:

First, there is our tendency toward “object” thinking versus “systems” thinking. If I’m in a car, and there is a slow cyclist in front of me, I could wish that she would go “away” and not delay me, ignoring the fact that if she weren’t on a bike she’d likely be in a car and cause me even more delay. Transport is a complex system, and the secondary impacts of transport investments can be even greater than the primary impacts.

Second is self-involvement. In the case of Columbus, or downtown Boulder, it was clear that it was cheaper to offer free transit passes to all downtown employees than it was to build additional parking for those who drive. So even if I want to drive every day, it’s cheaper for me to pay other people not to drive than it is for you to build me a parking space.

Third is what is awkwardly called “othering.” The events in Charlottesville this week offer an extreme picture of how we can define people by identity categories and thereby reject our common humanity. Saying “we shouldn’t build bike lanes because cyclists never stop at stop signs” is far less extreme than “immigrants are thugs,” but these statements are rooted in a belief that some people – “cyclists,” “immigrants,” “African-Americans” – are a different brand of human. Not like me. Not deserving of full participation in the social contract. I am not a “cyclist,” but I am someone who sometimes rides a bike when I’m not in a car or bus or on foot.

Anything else to add?

As TDM professionals, our task is to focus on people, and their choices, not infrastructure. So we have to understand human psychology, desires, and fears. We offer a path out of these destructive, dehumanizing debates.

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