Driving Down, Mass Transit Down, Telework Up

Graphic credit: Transportation Planning Board

by James A. Bacon

The trend toward less driving in the Washington metropolitan area has conformed to the devout wishes of greenies and planners alike over the past decade: Average daily vehicle miles driven per capita has declined steadily since 2005 from 25.7 miles to 22.6 miles. (Driving in 2015 showed a 0.1 mile up-tick, not surprising given the plunge in gasoline prices.)

But not because people were shifting to mass transit. Weekday ridership on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also declined: from 748,000 per day in 2009 to 701,000 in 2015. More people are biking, but the numbers are so small that biking as a transportation mode can’t move the needle. Something else is going on.

The Washington Post‘s Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, thinks that telecommuting might explain the difference. He cites a 2013 State of the Commute study that says more than half of commuters either can or could telework. As it turns out, the percentage of telecommuters is highest among those who also rely on rail transit, as shown in the chart above.

I find that counter intuitive. All other things being equal, I would expect commuters with the longest, most grueling ride to the office would have the greatest incentive to work at home. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why not? Perhaps commuters consider mass transit even more unpleasant or unreliable than spending time behind the wheel — not implausible, given the widely publicized safety, maintenance and reliability issues plaguing WMATA.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is worth exploring. We’re spending billions of dollars patching up Northern Virginia’s transportation infrastructure. There’s got to be a better way.

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16 responses to “Driving Down, Mass Transit Down, Telework Up”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    it’s no secret what is going on in the Washington Area – it’s called HOT lanes (High Occupancy Toll lanes) and despite a lot of criticisms – it’s working and VDOT fully intends to expand it further in the DC area despite opposition.

    Buses, Vans, carpooling and slugging are getting people out of SOLO cars on I-495 and I-95 with plans to convert I-66 and extend I-95 HOT lanes to Fredericksburg. One van – trades 9 cars for one van… one SLUG car 4 cars for one.

  2. I am all ears but its hard to imagine HOT lanes as huge traffic-reduction success. Unless the new choke points getting into MD up north have shut down that option. In Virginia seems we do road projects either to reduce traffic or to spur the economy (and think the latter case usually wins). Slugging on I-95 was a big success decades ago.

    If my household is included in the survey, we two left the workforce due to retirement age but also changes in the job opportunities available here.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    A big change in the D.C. Metro is the evolving acceptance of telecommuting by Uncle Sam. Years ago, my wife (a career federal attorney) could rarely telecommute. She does so much more often, and so do the people who work for her.

    Metro ridership is down big time. Higher and higher fares for less reliable service in crowded cars with all too often safety incidents.

  4. Years ago I was designing the house I would ultimately have built for me. I worked with an architect. I was very concerned that the floor plan be as modern as possible so that it wouldn’t go “out of date” for some time (split level, anybody?). He made a lot of very interesting and good suggestions. I asked him how he knew the future of floor plans. “Easy” he said, “Just look at how they are building houses in California today.”

    Telecommuting is rapidly falling out of favor. It started with the technology companies in California and has been spreading to other areas and other industries. The value of people spontaneously interacting while physically together has been badly underestimated by the telecommuting proponents. In addition, I’d tell anybody who can telecommute almost all the time to get their resume in order. If a DC-based accountants don’t have to come into the office why would I hire accountants in Alexandria, Vienna or Fredricksburg? I’d hire them in one of these cities …


    Or maybe an even more exotic place like Bangalore!

    Telecommuting = an easy ride to the unemployment line.

    I also like it when Jim Bacon channels Bernie Sanders …

    “We’re spending billions of dollars patching up Northern Virginia’s transportation infrastructure.”

    Add up all the taxes taken by the state from Northern Virginia. Now, add up all the monies spent by the state in Northern Virginia. Which number is bigger? Who is “we” there Kimosabe? You aren’t paying diddleysquat for transportation infrastructure in Northern Virginia.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Interesting comments on telecommuting.

      See page 18 of 22. http://www.mwcog.org/uploads/committee-documents/aFxeVlhd20160421091747.pdf This was presented at the April 20, 2016 TPB meeting.

      The TPB staff found the percentage of Greater Washington commuters who telecommute at least occasionally to have grown from 11% in 2000 to 27% in 2013. This slide is from the same deck that JB used for his post above.

      1. The momentum is still in favor of telecommuting. However, the trend setters are going the opposite way. On the good news front, a lot of big companies are now running their own buses from urban centers to the suburbs and back for their employees. So, I’m not sure that the vehicle miles driven is being affected all that much.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    yeah – I’m not a big believer in tele-commuting either for similar reasons to Don – and the fact that nowdays – you’re expected to get the job done – anyway you can including in your “off” time!!!

    The govt – not as much – but if you’re not physically in the office – you’re missing discussions, ad-hoc planning and impromptu meetings.. no two ways about it.

    in terms of HOT – VDOT has made a decision – they’re not going to widen and add lanes to big highways – as the first option any more and tolling – specifically – congestion tolling is going to become more and more used – not to generate money -but to manage congestion. The more congested it is – the higher the toll and HOV goes free and on the least congested lanes and will convey and connect – integrate with transit.

    we’re building new park & ride lots all up and down I-95 and they’re getting filled.

    VDOT already has I-495 and Northern I-95 HOT laned and are now planning I-395, I-66 and I-95 south to Fredericksburg.

    1. So, Bob McDonnell passed the “largest tax hike in Virginia history” to fund transportation. Now, new roads (and some existing roads) are being tolled. Kind of makes you wonder where all the extra tax money is going.

      One more proof point that you absolutely cannot trust The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond.

    2. Larry you might be seeing more HOT-lane slugging in your area also because the grandfathered “free SOV” hybrids have been kicked off the HOT lanes. In this area, slugging was always big, but we also still have grandfathered hybrids…since Arlington blocked the HOT lanes (to be completed) it still makes sense to use grandfathered hybrids here on I-395. If you live in Arlington, with a grandfather hybrid, seems to me you have good access to I66 and I395 free HOV…but not for too much longer.

  6. As Virginia works to turn I-66 into a partially tolled road, everyone please remember that the state’s study indicates that IF it becomes a “public private parnterhsip” it will cost taxpayers $1 billion MORE than if we design, build and operate the toll road ourselves.

    Toll roads are great because they help drivers recognize the externalities they are producing. Having the “privateers” in on them, however, scams all of we taxpayers. The data is clear as we have now 20-odd years of history with these P3 projects and the two countries which founded the concept, Australia and England, are running away from them as fast as possible. Two state governments in AU went down to defeat last year after Aussie voters finally woke up to the reality of the P3s and an analysis of UK P3 projects indicates taxpayers received 56 billion pounds of infrastructure for an expenditure of 276 billion pounds.

  7. Further, two of the most shocking stats on traffic I’ve ever read are that 50 percent of any day’s “commute time” traffic probably isn’t. Literally, the data shows that one half the cars on an inbound interstate between 6-9 a.m. are not the same cars that were there the day before. (different license plates from camera data). Who and why?

    The other piece of data: From Brooklyn, at any given time 44 percent of cars are trolling for parking; literally driving around looking for parking spaces. Similar numbers from LA near UCLA.

    1. Brooklyn is crazy. When I worked in Manhattan in the mid 80s nobody went to Brooklyn for any reason. There was nothing to do. Today, it is the place to be in NYC. Just an amazing build up. Considered very hip. I am not surprised that people can’t find parking.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: SOV HOV hybrids. Initially the idea behind HOV was to reduce air pollution and so it made sense to encourage less polluting vehicles but then as SOV volumes kept increasing and the costs of trying to widen I-95 were going to run into billions of dollars the state did not have and even if it did – it would not be enough to actually widen I-95 by taking developed properties on the edges – the philosophy shifted to using tolls to manage congestion by charging for it and rewarding those who shifted from SOV to HOV

    and that’s where they are right now – HOT is to manage congestion rather than finding funds to widen roads by taking developed properties.

    when you think about this – THIS IS a CONSERVATIVE solution – one that is cost effective AND uses supply/demand market forces AND This approach actually came from the Heritage Folks.

    This is NOT just a Virginia thing. This is going on across the country from LA to Houston to New York as well as Internationally.

    so I guess some folks will now claim it’s another global conspiracy, eh?

    1. I do not feel hybrids/plug-ins deserve free HOV access, so I feel VA is heading in the right direction there. California, on the other hand, is mainly using free HOV mainly as an incentive for plug-in vehicles sales. Free HOV for plug-ins in CA is one heckuva strong sales incentive, already approaching 200,000 plug-in vehicles with free HOV stickers.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        we agree on the hybrids – and I’m signed on to using tolls to manage congestion in MSAs where there is significant rush-hour volumes and the ability to widen/expand capacity is limited.

        The problem with region-wide rush hour is that the congestion affects most of the network – and widening selective parts of it – only really moves congestion to the next bottleneck – that may well not be easily or cheaply fixed – or if you do – it just pushes congestion to the next block point.

        One way to really have a beneficial regional network impact is to toll to inhibit use – rather that essentially build individual projects that then just push congestion to to other places. Congestion tolls get folks to use HOV, mass transit or time shift their trips. It’s not popular but it’s fun watching the politicians promising to stop it.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: billion dollars more – like to see a reference

    re: different plates on same road each day – would also like to see that reference

    I’m skeptical of both.

    PPTA is primarily because Va does not have the ability to borrow that much money without affecting their current credit capacity so they pay the private sector to build and finance. If we borrowed that money – and had to pay it back – how do the numbers work? IOW – if you just look at only the base profit the company makes – how much and for what period of years?

    on the license plates – I’m even more skeptical…

    the real question is – how much of the volume at rush hour is not commuting but rather out of region – “through” travelers.

    I-95 and 495 in the DC area is pretty famous up and down the east cost in terms of timing one’s trip to NOT be there at rush hour… or – divert via I-81 or Rt 301.

    but if there is a credible, authoritative source , and it says that – it would affect my view – but I have to see the data.

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