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posted Apr 16, 2016, 2:20 PM by Info@ Transiters   [ updated Apr 16, 2016, 2:26 PM ]


March 10, 2016

Stuart M Whitaker

When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," he was not merely being aspirational. At the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant "government of the people" but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term people to actually mean.—Ta-Nehisi Coates

Everyone travels. Yet while most people use multiple forms of transportation (which is to say they are multimodal), while one-third of the population doesn't have a driver's license or own an automobile, and while the use of transportation modes vary by demographic group, too many government officials believe that from a transportation perspective, the only people they serve are automobile drivers. Two examples illustrate this point: a recent winter snow storm and plans for a $2-3 billion highway expansion in Virginia.


The blizzard that hit portions of the mid-Atlantic and northeast section of the United States in January maybe a distant memory, but blizzards will return, and blizzards such as this demonstrate is that it takes more than an investment in infrastructure to ensure a functioning transportation system. A functioning transportation system also requires operations. This is an examination of a particular blizzard, a transportation system, and the degree to which government officials and organizations respond to the needs of all its citizens. The example discussed involves Virginia, but the issues are universal.

Even with preparation, blizzards will continue to disrupt transportation systems and impose a significant economic costs. For one estimate of the cost, consider the Fairfax County Public School system in suburban Washington, DC. This system, which serves 187,000 students, was shut down for seven days. With an annual budget of $2.7 billion and a 180 day school year, this represents a loss of over $100 million.

Preparations for this storm varied by organization. Fairfax County itself has a snow removal plan covering 152 building complexes, critical and non-critical walkways, and 75 roadway segments. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Administration (WMATA), after shutting down for two days during the storm, cleared the snow from its MetroRail lines and station properties, and resumed MetroRail, MetroBus, and MetroAccess service. The Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which owns most of the roads, was clearing roads with 4,000 trucks and plows. While clearing sidewalks is generally considered the responsibility of businesses and homeowners, VDOT does not accept responsibility for clearing any of its own sidewalks. As a result, auto users were able to resume normal activities much more quickly and safely than individuals who used other forms of transportation, and some people who would otherwise not drive were forced to drive congested roadways.


Sidewalk cleared by WMATA at their West Falls Church Metro station.


WMATA's cleared sidewalk at West Falls Church Metro Station meets VDOT's uncleared sidewalk on Haycock Road.


Uncleared sidewalk on VDOT's Haycock Road bridge across I66.

Why does VDOT only service automobile users? VDOT simply says it is policy. State and local elected officials were not much help. One state elected representative suggested that clearing cul-de-sacs is a higher priority—that would be fine if sidewalks were a priority at all. In fact, if priority is based on the number of people endangered or inconvenienced by snow, sidewalks on busy roadways would often rank higher than individual cul-de-sacs. This same representative indicated that there hadn't been many calls about sidewalks and suggested therefore that they aren't important. The fact that more people might call about getting out of their own cul-de-sac than would call about a public sidewalk is not surprising—people tend to take care of their own "private" goods better than they do other "public" goods. Consider of personal versus rental cars and think of how people take care of their own yard versus a public park.

It doesn't have to be this way. In Copenhagen, for instance, snow is removed from sidewalks, bike lanes, and roadways. At least one Virginia county—Arlington—has a "multimodal clearing" policy that covers sidewalks, shelters, walks over bridges, overpasses, and bike lanes.


Copenhagen, Denmark


Arlington, Virginia


US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says transportation is undergoing some of the dramatic changes we have ever seen. As an example, per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) declined from 2001 to 2009 for all all age groups, and the share of licensed drivers under the age of 35 fell from forty-six percent in 1981 to thirty percent in 2012 ("The 10 Biggest Factors Changing Millennial Driving Habits," Eric Jaffe). The conception and design of transportation systems has been changing as well. A number of transportation experts believe that building more roads induces more traffic and often fails to relieve congestion. A study prepared for the California Air Resources Board (CARB) found that adding capacity to roadways fails to alleviate congestion for long because it actually increases VMT ("Increasing Highway Capacity Unlikely to Relieve Traffic Congestion," University of California, Davis). After the state of Texas spent $2.8 billion to expand the Katy Freeway to 23 lanes, it soon found that congestion was just as bad as it had been before. In response, some places such as Melbourne, Australia, are actually reducing their roadway miles (@WRICities, January 14, 2016). Technology is having a huge impact as well, with the development of car sharing companies such as Zipcar, Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber, bike sharing, and a wide variety of mobile transportation apps.



Multimodal refers to the various forms of transportation including public transportation, bicycles, walking, and automobiles. While there have been calls from many quarters to reduce automobile trips and to increase use of other modes of transportation, Pope Francis made this call last year, offering a broad range of justifications, including protection of the health of humans, the earth, and providing better economic opportunity to everyone ("LAUDATO SI,’" Pope Francis). Closer to home, Secretary Foxx recognizes that transportation impacts the "quality of life, mobility, economics, and opportunity.” Illustrating the administration's priorities, the US Department of Transportation's 2017 Budget Highlights includes a picture of the Long Street bridge—a multimodal solution—in Columbus, Ohio, that restored connection between the King-Lincoln District, a neighborhood that was cut off in the 1960s by construction of an interstate highway from the city’s center and economic opportunity.


Long Street Bridge, Columbus, Ohio


According to some reports, the Washington, DC region has some of the worst traffic in the nation ("This city has the absolute worst traffic," Jonathan Chew), and though congestion is a regional issue, the individual jurisdictions of the District of Columbia, the State of Maryland, and the Commonwealth of Virginia are left to find their own solutions. Virginia's Governor Terry McAuliffe is proceeding with a $2-3 billion fifty-four mile highway expansion to link suburban Virginia to the District of Columbia. This is not a 21st century solution, but the sort of auto-centric solution that we have seen for half a century. While the McAuliffe administration and VDOT, which is responsible for this project, call this a "multimodal" effort, they have not provided a forecast for the mode share that will result from this project. VDOT has provided an estimate of the share of auto trips on a ten mile portion of the project: the auto mode share is actually expected to rise. VDOT estimates that automobile trips currently constitute 91% of the trips a separate twenty-five mile segment outside Beltway but has not provided an estimates of the change in the share that will result from this project. There is no reason to believe that auto mode share will decline.

It seems clear from Virginia's policy concerning snow removal and its plans for further highway expansion that Virginia has little multimodal commitment. Aside from prodding from Pope Francis, why should anyone care about sidewalks and multimodal transportation?

There are many reasons. Fiscal conservatives should care because it costs more to build highway infrastructure for automobiles than to build infrastructure for other transportation modes. People who are concerned about reducing congestion and travel time should be interested in moving people from automobiles to other transportation modes. People who are concerned about health should understand that public transportation and active transportation are better for them than sitting in an auto. People who are concerned about their personal finances should realize that automobiles are often more expensive than alternatives. People who are concerned about enabling everyone to be able to travel, regardless of age, disability, or income, should support alternatives. People who are concerned about reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should choose something other than an auto. People who are concerned about reducing fossil fuel consumption shouldn't use an auto. People who are concerned about other environmental damage should support highway alternatives. People who are concerned about reducing the risk of pedestrian deaths from autos should support providing adequate and safe places to walk. People who are concerned about the risk from traffic deaths should realize that autos are more dangerous than the alternatives.

Officials at local, state, and national levels should serve the needs and interests of everyone.