With roads clogged and rail in the ditch, time for disparate measures?


So, no light rail, not anytime soon at least.

Highway expansions are underway, and more are planned, but the completion of many of them (particularly for Interstate 35) is years away. Away from the highways, many Austin streets could only be expanded by widespread acquisition and demolition of existing development alongside them, an exorbitantly expensive and politically impossible prospect.

And, in the here and now, Central Austin streets, especially downtown, are choked with traffic inside and, often, outside of rush hours. About 125,000 people work in Austin’s central business district. And more people by the dozens are moving to the area every day.

Looking at that ugly picture, a sense of dread is a reasonable response. But elected officials and the transportation professionals who work for them don’t have the option to lower the blinds and curl up on the floor in a fetal position. They have to look for solutions.

Or, in this case, some way to mitigate the damage.

Enter “travel demand management.” Uh, what?

Think of transportation as a marketplace, with supply and demand. The supply is street and highway lanes available, bus and train service, bike lanes, bike share and car share services, taxis and limos, and people’s legs.

Demand, in road terms, is the number of cars and trucks using them.

So, if population is increasing faster than the supply of transportation (or has already, as is the case here), muting the demand might be the only feasible and affordable approach. At least in the short run.

People, however, still have to get where they need to go.

But what if they were to go there at a different time than “normal?” Or not as often? Or what if “there” were closer to home?

Flex work schedules and telecommuting are not new, of course. In 2010, according to the census, about 7.3 percent of workers in the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos area said they “usually” work at home. That was up from 5 percent just five years earlier, and it put this area 10th in the nation.

The census’ American Community Survey, however, didn’t ask about people using flex time or compressed work weeks, situations where someone is allowed to work four 10-hour days a week, or perhaps nine 9-hour days every two weeks. According to the local transportation official being paid to think about such things, Glenn Gadbois of Movability Austin, no one is really tracking this.

But whatever the flex time slice is, neither it nor telecommuting usage is taking a sufficient bite out of Austin traffic. New Austin Mayor Steve Adler told me last week he’d like to use his “bully pulpit” to change this. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is advocating for telecommuting and flex time. And Gadbois, through his 4-year-old organization, is trying to make it happen one company at a time.

Traffic congestion is not linear.

In other words, reducing the volume of cars 5 percent doesn’t lead necessarily to a 5 percent gain in travel speeds. In fact, if the volume is high enough on a given road at a given time, it might make no difference at all. But at some point, the diversion between the number of cars and travel speeds goes the other way, and takes off. A 15 percent decrease in cars could increase travel speeds by a much higher percentage.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, in a report released about a year ago using traffic modeling by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, estimated that if 12 percent of people commuted outside the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. peak period (and thus missed the evening peak period as well), travel times in 2035 would be about 9 percent lower than they otherwise would be. Mind you, they’d still be worse than today, given all the people moving here.

The study showed a similar improvement if 10 percent of the workforce on any given day worked from home, not all that much higher than was the case in Central Texas in 2010.

Making any of this happen is the trick, of course.

Night owls aren’t going to want to report to work at 7 a.m. or earlier, even if that means getting off from work early. Managers used to be seeing employees at their desks and, presumably, working, can be resistant to the idea of supervising someone by phone and computer. Workers, used to the camaraderie of the office or shop or worried about whether they would be productive at home, shy away. And a huge percentage of nonoffice jobs just don’t lend themselves to flex time or telecommuting.

Gadbois, however, said the point is that some share of people would do it if given a legitimate chance. And it takes only a few percent more to make a difference on I-35 or East Cesar Chavez Street at 5:15 p.m.

“There’s no training of managers, no marketing or understanding of it, and there’s no concerted or formal program to get workers on flex time at any level of government” in Central Texas, he said. “Employees don’t know how to do it, and managers don’t know how to manage it. So it is really hard for an employee to decide to do it.”

Out-of-the-box strategies like these don’t flourish until traffic reaches some hard-to-quantify tipping point. We might have reached that point. It might be time.

Desperate times call for disparate measures.

Correction: This article has been updated to provide the correct name of Movability Austin.


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