Bacon's Rebellion

James A. Bacon


 

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One "flex" car takes a half dozen other autos off the streets. That's why Arlington County supports car sharing as part of its strategy for dealing with traffic congestion.


 

Arlington County is embracing flex cars: vehicles that subscribers can reserve by the hour and drive when they need one instead of hassling with owning and maintaining their own. The county has turned over premium parking spaces near Metro stops in the Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor to two car-sharing operators, and is subsidizing the services to spur local residents to sign up for them.


Judging by raw numbers alone, the flex car initiative will barely dent Northern Virginia’s massive traffic congestion problem. Heck, it probably won’t even make a perceptible ding.


The pilot project will increase the number of “self-service cars” to 20. Even the most zealous advocates of the concept acknowledge that putting one shared car on the streets takes only four to eight regular cars off. That rule of thumb translates into 80 to 160 fewer cars in a county of 190,000 inhabitants and a region of two million. Fast-growing Northern Virginia undoubtedly adds that many new cars to the transportation system every day.


But the significance of Arlington’s flex-car initiative is far greater than the paltry numbers would indicate. For starters, it’s only a pilot project. If the program proves successful, Arlington will expand it. But it also drives home a crucial lesson about the economics of mobility.


Because Arlington has paid particular heed to the impact of land use on its transportation system, residents enjoy transportation options that most other Virginians do not. The Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor is densely developed, pedestrian friendly and well served by mass transit. Because people can get around perfectly well without a car most of the time – walking, biking, taking the Metro – it makes sense to share access to cars for occasional use. It’s easier to ditch that second car if you know that you can avail yourself of a flex car those two or three times a week you really need one.


By contrast, the vast majority of Virginians have no options. They live, work, shop and seek recreation in places in which activities are separated by such great distances that driving is the only way to get from Point A to Point B. For all practical purposes, every adult must own a car or drop out of the system.


Understanding the interaction between land use and transportation is critical. The General Assembly may have passed the largest tax increase in its history, but that doesn’t mean the pressure for even higher taxes has receded. Indeed, the new tax revenues will be used mainly to fund education and shore up state finances bedeviled by years of short-term fixes. But the sense is widespread that Virginia still faces a transportation “crisis” due to a multi-billion shortfall in transportation funding. Another tax grab, this one for transportation, is all but inevitable – if not in this budget biennium, then the next.


It is imperative, then, that Virginians articulate an alternative to the tax-and-build transportation strategy of the past. It shouldn’t be hard. The alternative has a name: “transportation demand management.” It’s based on the insight that, instead of trying to solve traffic congestion by increasing the supply -- building or widening roads -- the Commonwealth also needs to better manage the demand for transportation capacity. 
 
Demand-driven remedies include telecommuting, ride sharing, HOT lanes which use the pricing mechanism to allocate scarce Interstate capacity, and information systems that keep motorists informed of real-time traffic conditions so they can alter routes or schedules.

 

Demand-side thinking also gives careful thought to how the pattern of development can influence the number and length of car trips that people take in the conduct of their daily affairs.


Arlington County arguably has done a better job of promoting transportation demand management than any other jurisdiction in Virginia. Instead of insulating its Metro stops with vast parking lots, accessible only by cars, Arlington has zoned for higher density development around its Metro stations, making them accessible by pedestrians.

 

The county also has emphasized pedestrian-friendly streetscape design that encourages people to walk. As a result, people are less dependent upon their automobiles. 
That independence is what makes shared-car services a viable option. Arlington has contracted with two companies, Flex Car and Zip Car, to deliver the services in the county. To stimulate ridership, the county is providing premium parking spaces near Metro stops for the cars. Orange sign posts call attention to the cars and provide information about the service. Furthermore, the county is offering discounts for people who either live or work in the county to sign up.


Bobbi Greenberg, Arlington’s transmit marketing manager, sees the flex-car service providing a significance convenience for people either living or working in the county. “If you take the METRO to work, you can run an errand during lunch. You can pick up your dry cleaning or your prescriptions, or whatever you need to do, and put the car back in its place.”


Research has showed that many urban residents need a car only two, three, four times a week: to pick up a piece of furniture, say, or go on a date, or dash out on business. Because the ability to do these things is so essential, even if only occasionally, they buy a car. Once they buy a car, they decide they might as well use it. So, they drive to work instead of ride the train or bus. If these urban dwellers had access to a shared vehicle when they needed one, they might feel comfortable dispensing with one or more of the family cars.


The shared-car concept, which started in Europe, has attracted a dozen competitors in the United States, and has spread to most major cities. Car ownership is remarkably expensive when you add up all the costs, contends Gabe Klein, Zipcar regional vice president for the Washington, D.C., area. Figure in the financing costs, plus property tax, insurance, maintenance, gasoline, and parking. “There are people who spend $600 a month on a car they use only one or two times a week,” and $1,000 a month isn’t uncommon. 
Compare that to the cost of a shared car.

 

Subscribers can use a Zip Car for as little as $7.50 an hour or $50 for 24 hours. The average trip lasts three or four hours. Make a reservation online, pay by credit card. Time is tracked by wireless technology. Says Klein: “Use a car eight times a month, you’re talking $300.” 
 
Flex Car has 4,000 members in the Washington, D.C., area. The company moved into the Arlington sub-market, says Tim Vogel, Washington area manager, because its high-density “urban villages” around the Metro stops are the perfect setting for people seeking a “car-free lifestyle.”


Sadly, outside of the Washington, D.C., area, Vogel doesn’t see much expansion potential in Virginia right now. Downtown Norfolk and Richmond might have sufficient density to support a shared-car service, but there are other, richer targets of opportunity in larger cities. College towns like Blacksburg and Charlottesville might be good markets, says Zipcar’s Klein, but his company has no plans to enter either one at the moment.


Indeed, there seems little prospect that shared-car services will make inroads in Virginia outside of Arlington County or neighboring Alexandria any time soon. Arlington has the benefit of Metro stations, plus a 30-year head start in planning the right kind of development around them. No other jurisdiction has made a comparable commitment.


Shared car services may work only in a handful of places, but every region can create transportation options for itself by encouraging the right kind of development in the right places. In Richmond, it could be light rail along abandoned railroad rights of way. In Hampton Roads, it could be high-speed ferries linking downtown Norfolk with waterfront condos in Virginia Beach or Hampton. Such enterprises may seem economic pipe dreams now, given the current scattered, low-density pattern of land use, but they could prove viable as connectors of high-density development comparable to that along the Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor. 

 

The bottom line: By reforming land use, Virginians can change the economics of mobility and stimulate private-sector solutions that contribute to the mitigation of traffic congestion.

 

-- May 10, 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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