The Traffic Solution No One is Talking About

by Randy Machemehl, as told to Rose Cahalan

Forget highway construction projects. UT transportation researcher Randy Machemehl says he has a traffic solution that costs nothing and could be implemented today.

Traffic congestion is a huge problem, and it’s a growing one. My colleagues at Texas A&M found that across the U.S., congestion delays caused drivers to waste 3 billion gallons of gas and kept travelers in their cars for 7 billion extra hours in 2014. The report estimated that gridlock cost the nation $160 billion, or $960 per commuter. This is a global problem, and it’s also a problem in Texas, since five of the 11 fastest-growing U.S. cities are in our state.

I teach a class on transportation at UT, and I like to tell my students that I have a solution to congestion which costs nothing. We could implement it today, and by tomorrow morning we’d have absolutely no congestion. They’re always curious what that is. It’s not self-driving cars or gondolas or turning Interstate 35 into a park — it’s something called travel-demand management. This is a group of strategies that are all ways to reduce or spread demand across the transportation system during peak hours. Some of these strategies include carpooling, telecommuting, and flex time. All of these measures have little or no cost and could lead to huge improvements at rush hour.

Four-day workweeks are a good one. A few years ago, the Texas Department of Transportation ran an experiment. They tried letting their maintenance crews work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days, and they asked me and my colleagues to study the effects. Turns out, the crews were actually more productive on the new schedule, and TxDOT saved money because they were able to close their offices on Fridays. And of course, the employees spent 20 percent less time commuting. If more workplaces tried similar strategies, we’d see a significant reduction in congestion.

An advantage of that TxDOT plan was that the workers loved their new schedule. The key to implementing travel demand management is that you need to give people an incentive to change their behavior. I’ve been talking about carpooling for decades, and unfortunately it still hasn’t caught on. Changing human behavior is hard; we’re all stuck in our habits. People like the privacy and convenience of their cars. But they also aren’t stupid. I’m often asked what it will take to get Texans to use public transportation, and my answer is very short: do nothing. If we do nothing, congestion will get worse, and people will look for a better alternative. That’s what got me to use public transportation. I used to drive to UT from my home in Sunset Valley, and then I realized I could get to work in about the same amount of time on the bus — while reading the newspaper, working on my laptop, or just relaxing and not worrying about getting rear-ended. In cities like Chicago and New York, people recognize that congestion levels are such that a car isn’t a feasible option. Eventually, we’ll get to that point in Texas and people will look for alternatives, if we provide them. It’s already starting to happen in Austin.

We used to think we could just build our way out of congestion, but now we know that’s not true. If you really want to reduce congestion, you have to approach the problem from both sides: increase capacity and reduce or manage demand. It’s a complex problem, and no single one of these solutions is going to work on its own. We need all of these approaches: more public transit, more bike lanes, and more carpooling, telecommuting, and flex time. Something has to change.

Illustration by Gisela Goppel

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