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February 23, 2021Episode 2: Does the Road Go On Forever? We can’t just pave our way out of traffic congestion.
FEATURING: David Schrank
Our 2020 experience taught us we can reduce roadway gridlock drastically in the face of a public health crisis, by reducing the demand for road space. According to TTI Senior Research Scientist David Schrank, the bigger test will come in whether we can do so once the crisis is over.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Scientist
David Schrank has worked in urban mobility research for more than 25 years. He assesses congestion levels and costs throughout the United States to help transportation officials and policymakers understand and manage the growth in American roadway traffic.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Hello. Welcome to thinking transportation, a podcast about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m your host, Bernie Fette, editor-at-large at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:31):
We’re about a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardly a day has passed since then that we haven’t talked about, or at least thought about, how much we really want things to get back to normal. Normal visits to restaurants and sporting events, normal encounters with our friends and maybe even normal encounters with strangers too–but normal traffic? Maybe not so much.
Bernie Fette (00:56):
Roadway gridlock today looks pretty much the same as it did before the lockdown last spring. That’s when traffic jams were costing the average American about a thousand dollars and more than 50 hours of lost time, every year. A lot of things about life have been changed forever, but traffic congestion just might end up being one of the few things that remains pretty much the same as we’ve always known it to be. Does that mean that we have to deal with traffic congestion in the same way? That we have to manage it the same way? Well, if you ask David Schrank, the answer is maybe not. David is a senior research scientist at TTI, and he’s been studying traffic jams for most of the 30 years he’s been in this business. David, thank you for joining us.
David Schrank (guest) (01:51):
Glad to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:54):
Well, can you start by helping us understand simply why traffic keeps getting worse? How did we get ourselves into this mess?
David Schrank (02:04):
Traffic gets worse because the population grows in an area. And with that, economic activity picks up. It takes more housing, it takes more businesses, it takes more office space and all the traffic that’s associated with those various land uses. Transportation planning can often take five, ten years for a solution to be planned all the way till it is on the ground and helping. And in that time, if you think about it, the traffic can grow at one or two percent a year, is kind of the traditional thinking. That could be 10 or 20 percent between the time that project is planned until it is implemented. And with that, so we can oftentimes sort of lose ground and we see traffic congestion grow as we’re coming through these cycles of adding more transportation system to handle that demand.
Bernie Fette (03:01):
So from what you’re describing, it sounds like we’re always playing catch-up to some degree. So that’s how we got into this mess. And so can you tell us now, how do we get out? What options do we have?
David Schrank (03:16):
You mentioned the 30 years we’ve been doing this. In that time, we’ve said these solutions are a little bit of everything. Traditional treatments, like things like construction or mass transportation and those sorts of things along with the improved technologies that we have today with, with the computing side of transportation, um, we need more of those things, all of them.
Bernie Fette (03:41):
So can you talk a little bit about some pros and cons of some of these options? Do they involve trade-offs?
David Schrank (03:50):
So traditionally, when most people think of transportation, they think about adding some kind of a new capacity, meaning a road or a transit line or something like that. Those can take a lot of time. Those can take a lot of resources, meaning capital in order to construct or to implement those treatments. Demand management, on the other hand, which is, is managing the travel that’s trying to use it. Those facilities can be much quicker and potentially cheaper to implement than those traditional, uh, you know, widen the road, add a bus line; add a light rail line — those kinds of treatments that we think about. And with that, the trade-off there is potentially we get a quicker solution that’s cheaper as opposed to one of these five- and ten-year multi-million-dollar type investments.
Bernie Fette (04:54):
You talk about demand management and, and you describe it as, as this is a kind of a supply and demand picture. Miles of roadway, if I understand right, that’s the supply side and the number of vehicles wanting to use that road space, that’s the demand side. So you sound like you’re a fan of focusing more on the demand part of that picture, is that fair to say?
David Schrank (05:18):
I’m a fan of using all the options at our disposal. And that means keeping with what we’ve done in the past; we will need more system because we continue to grow in our population and in our economy. But at the same time, look at what’s happened during this COVID time with the changes that have occurred in our transportation, system with less people driving to work in those peak times as peak six, eight hours a day, when so much demand is placed on our system, when we’re all trying to go to work at eight, and we’re all trying to leave at five, this demand management, um, can make a big difference at whittling down and shrinking those peak periods.
Bernie Fette (06:04):
So it sounds like a very simple and straightforward approach. Is, is there a hidden challenge here? How do we actually do what you’re suggesting?
David Schrank (06:18):
As our budgets are struggling to provide these large investments in transportation across the country, um, there’s actually sort of a double-edged sword here. As we build more road, there’s obviously the maintenance side that comes with that. So we have to maintain what was there and now maintain what we’ve just added. So those two things together keep demanding more money, more capital be spent on them. Our systems are already, um, so requiring more and more maintenance. Our bridge system across the country is taking a lot of resources. Now we have very old bridge system that is required to a lot of those to be, uh, replaced and or upgraded. So when we’re looking at the demand side of the equation, this could free up funds that we were putting into more roads, more transit, more options, and make those dollars go further, because we are now satisfying more demand with less dollars because we are managing that demand.
Bernie Fette (07:31):
It sounds like we’ve already been kind of pushed into doing some of what you’re describing. Is that, is that right?
David Schrank (07:39):
In a way COVID forced our hand. Um, it demonstrated how we could keep a lot of our workforce at home and keep the economy going. Yes, we’ve struggled here, there; certain sectors have, have struggled with this telework kind of environment, but while this trend is hot right now, and while we are understanding how this works, we should be following up on that to encourage employers, to keep doing this as it is available and an option to their workforce, because in the long run, this will allow us again, free up potential large amounts of money that we’re putting into a transportation system that we keep having to expand because of increased demand, increased need for transportation, into now we’re managing that demand. And because of that, we can stretch those transportation dollars even further. It may sound strange, but you could almost incentivize this activity. Instead of spending millions and billions of dollars on the transportation system, you could spend a fraction of that encouraging workers to work from home.
Bernie Fette (08:56):
And I remember a conversation we had about this not too long ago. What I remember you saying was, think of all the millions that we spend on building a mile of freeway and think of how many laptops you might be able to buy with the same amount of money.
David Schrank (09:13):
Well, that’s exactly right. If you look at, at sort of what happened when we got the stay at home notices across the country, what we saw is we weren’t driving anymore. Now we’re driving our computers from the house. And so to your point, we were investing in our transportation by purchasing laptops and things to stay at home.
Bernie Fette (09:36):
Okay. Part of what you’re describing requires or seems to require a pretty dramatic shift in the way that people think about moving about every day. How do you speak to commuters who are very fine right now with the way that they’re getting to work, thank you very much? How do you, how do you talk to those people?
David Schrank (09:58):
I don’t know many commuters that really relish the time slogging away in traffic day in and day out. If you could tell them they might only have to do that a day or two a week. I think that that would resonate well, and that there were a lot better uses of that extra time than the traditional day-to-day slog to work. Now you could regain that time and use it to spend with the family or go to dinner early on a given weeknight and other uses that you would rather have for that 30 minutes, hour-long, hour and a half of driving you were doing day in and day out. So, I think that there’s a lot to be said for, as we come out of this and telework is again optional for us, I think it will have a different appeal than it does when it’s sort of forced on us.
Bernie Fette (10:52):
Okay. How does research fit into what you’re advocating? What are you guys studying right now?
David Schrank (11:01):
We’re actually looking into how COVID travel has changed and varied around the country by region. For example, some of the areas that rely heavily on transit, they haven’t seen that ridership return. So the question is, will it return or what will it look like in years to come? In other areas that have an older, an elderly population that are nervous about traveling, they’ve seen some of their travel down because some of that older elderly population is not on the road as much. So again, what does that mean going forward? Will they return, or are they becoming used to a world where they don’t make that trip on a train every day or they don’t drive to satisfy their needs as an older driver?
Bernie Fette (11:56):
Okay. That’s what you’re working on now. Do you have in mind, any questions that you guys envision that you’re going to need to be asking in the future? What else is on your research to-do list?
David Schrank (12:08):
It’s kind of interesting with every positive, there’s always a small amount of negatives or things you have to work through. One of the things that arises from more people staying home and working from home is that when this becomes optional in the future, what happens when all of those workers decide that today is the day I’m going in; the world has gotten used to a lower amount of commute travel. So workers are maybe leaving a half-hour later in the morning to go to work and, and getting home half an hour earlier in the evening. Well, now when everybody, all that demand comes back on a given day and the system is not ready for it, the congestion level could actually be worse than it was pre-COVID, because we’re not all expecting that on a given day. It’s like. In essence, you have a bunch of incidents happening on your transportation system all at once on a given day. So we will have to work through some of those kinds of issues to try to figure out how to keep the system at a sort of normal operating level throughout the day, even if that operating level is a less congested one than we have in today’s or our pre-COVID world.
Bernie Fette (13:28):
So it sounds like you think that there’s still a lot of work to be done on the subject, but we’ve kind of seen the promise of what could be by or through the example that we’ve been kind of forced into setting for ourselves.
David Schrank (13:42):
I think that’s accurate. Again, we’ve, we’ve developed some momentum here to use this telework, you know, again, forced on us, but now we’ve learned, and from what we’ve learned, can we carry that forward and use that to our advantage, to help us with our transportation of the future so that we increase our transportation system by decreasing our transportation demand?
Bernie Fette (14:08):
And it’s looking like we know how to do that.
David Schrank (14:12):
What we’ve seen on the roads for the past six, nine months is that the peak periods are shorter than they used to be as far as hours of the day. And they’re not quite as bad and that we won’t, we’re not going 10, 15 miles an hour, we’re going 30 or 40 miles an hour in those peaks. So if we can maintain that momentum and keep that going forward, maybe what we’ve known as our traditional four, five, six, seven, eight hours a day of slogging in traffic can be reduced and shortened and improved going forward so that we don’t have to have that situation again.
Bernie Fette (14:52):
Talked a lot today about what problems we face and what the possibilities are. We talk about elevator speeches. If you just had, you know, half a minute to tell everybody what you think is important here, that we’ve learned in the last 30 years and the next few years going forward, what are you thinking?
David Schrank (15:12):
The transportation system in the U.S. going forward is going to need some of everything, just like we have for decades. So we will need to continue to build things to add things; but at the same time, maybe we can make some of those improvements, those additions go further by managing demand that’s using those systems. And in doing that, we have a more all-encompassing transportation system going forward, where we look at both supply and demand. We’ve known about telework and flexible work environment for decades, but we have never really acted on it systemically. As I mentioned earlier, COVID has forced our hand, and it’s made us implement telework nationwide. And because of that, we’ve learned a lot about what teleworking can do for our transportation system. So travel demand management, known as telework and other options like that, should be right up there with every option we look at when there’s a transportation need. Should we build a road? Should we add a rail line? Can we do something with telework to make our situation better?
Bernie Fette (16:32):
David Schrank is a senior research scientist at TTI. David, we appreciate you helping us understand all of this just a little more clearly. Thanks very much for sharing your time with us.
David Schrank (16:44):
Appreciate it. Anytime, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (16:47):
If we had always planned our transportation future by leaning on the past, the saddle and horse carriage industries would be great places to invest your money. And we’d have an awful lot of manure to scoop up. Thankfully, we didn’t take that path. We chose to not cling to an old mobility idea just because it had worked for us in the past. Maybe we should apply the same proactive approach to our mobility needs today and concentrate more on how to use our roads better, not just on how to build more of them.
Bernie Fette (17:23):
Thank you for listening. We hope that you’ll subscribe to our podcast and share it, too. In the next episode of Thinking Transportation, we’ll turn our attention to self-driving cars. And we’ll hear from Bob Brydia, who will help us understand why we’re still waiting for those cars and why we might be waiting for quite a while longer.
Bernie Fette (17:43):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is produced and edited by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again for joining us. See you next time.