Helping El Paso Manage Growing Pains
By 2030, the Office of the State Demographer projects Texas’ population will rise from 25.2 million in 2010 to 33.9 million in 2030. And that growth is not just happening in cities like Austin, Dallas or Houston. It’s happening statewide in urban areas of all sizes.
In the El Paso del Norte region, commutes at peak travel times take up to an hour to cover 20 miles. That means local residents are spending more time in traffic, and their idling vehicles are adding to the region’s air pollution. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared El Paso a non-attainment area, meaning the region fails to meet the EPA’s air-quality standards and is at risk for losing federal funding until it does.
El Paso’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is taking action. The MPO’s planning area covers not only El Paso, but also the nearby rural communities and even parts of New Mexico. Add to that a mountain range extending from the New Mexico border into downtown El Paso, and traffic planning gets complicated pretty fast.
“We’re currently assessing how our transportation system needs to look in the future,” explains Michael Medina, executive director of the El Paso MPO. “To do that, we need to know how people in the region use the different modes—pedestrian, bicycle, transit—as well as how they might feel about using those modes in the future.”
Researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) Center for Intelligent International Transportation (CIITR) have come up with a new methodology to assist El Paso’s MPO in developing a multimodal plan for the region aimed at decreasing congestion and pollution by encouraging alternate modes of travel.
The TTI team, led by Associate Research Engineer Alfredo Sanchez, collected baseline data related to how local residents currently use the biking, walking and transit modes. Researchers are looking at the level of service (LOS) provided by each of the three modes plus the automobile. By relating the LOSs across modes, they can identify qualitative measurements for assessing each mode’s efficiency relative to the others.
“We’ve actually had to create a whole new methodology for doing this,” explains Sanchez. “The others that exist weren’t feasible for comparing the different modes to one another and didn’t allow for a complete, multimodal trip-based evaluation.”
In other words, if a person rode their bike to a bus stop, then rode the bus to another location from which they walked to their office, existing methodologies didn’t allow for rating the relative benefits each of those modes contributed to the overall trip.
“Our new methodology scores the modes on how efficient they are within the context of a person’s trip,” says Sanchez. “It’s sensitive to El Paso’s unique demographics and trip factors, like time of day, and uses performance measures of a given mode’s efficiency.”
TTI used easily accessible data to run its analysis, relying heavily on GIS information from existing agencies like Sun Metro (El Paso’s transit agency) and the El Paso Department of Transportation. Researchers also employed a travel demand model that includes census and employment data from 2014 and 2030 to perform their analysis. They then created a framework for comparing the modes relative to one another.
“Part of what we’re doing is assessing what the El Paso MPO area has in the way of existing multimodal transportation facilities and where gaps occur between modes,” says Sanchez. “It’s those kinds of negative aspects of the current system that might influence users to choose to drive their car rather than use other modes of travel.”
Although the project is ongoing, researchers have already determined that El Paso’s bicycle infrastructures needs significant improvements to facilitate last-mile connectivity for local residents. Eventually, the MPO will use TTI’s research findings to analyze travel behaviors as the beginnings of a strategy to make alternate travel modes more appealing to El Pasoans.
Ultimately TTI will provide the MPO with a framework for analyzing and prioritizing multimodal projects. The MPO can use the framework to ultimately design a system for the future that minimizes congestion and the pollution associated with it. Less pollution and healthier traveling choices, like biking and walking, could help improve citizens’ health. And that could mean less societal costs associated with conditions like respiratory disease, obesity and cardiovascular health.
“TTI created this methodology for us to use here in El Paso, but with tweaking, it can be applied anywhere,” says Medina. “With it, any local MPO could determine how to increase mobility for its citizens across travel modes.”