IF ABOUT 260 BURLINGTON-MONTPELIER, VT COMMUTERS TRAVEL BY “LINK” BUS THIS YEAR, THEN WHY SO MANY CARS ON INTERSTATE I 89....NOT
Earlier this week this Blog described the phenomenal growth of commuters on “Link” bus services since being introduced about 2005 with words like “astounding” and “astonishing,” as symbolic of a seismic shift from car travel in Vermont and New England. And in a changed commuting environment this Blog has also advocated for immediate installation of commuter rail services in the commuter corridors leading to and from Burlington as the first step in establishing a statewide rail passenger network.
A parallel finding in a Blog this week found the joint transportation services agency formed by three major employers recorded employee surveys results of a solo driving decline of 15% 2000-2010. The “troika” of Burlington employers—Fletcher Allen Health Care, University of Vermont and Champlain College--employment totals 10,000 workers.
If so many commuters ride the Link services now—about 225 this year daily in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor alone—and employees of three major Burlington have switched to everything from bicycling to carpooling and public transit, then why are so many cars still traveling the I 89 corridor between Burlington and Montpelier? Well, in actuality, as one would expect, traffic numbers decline on I 89 since 2000 on a key leg reflect in part the switch of solo drivers to bus and car sharing. The Link services and the “troika” programs designed to decease solo driving to some degree are reflected in traffic numbers on I 89.
From a 2006 average through April this year, traffic along I 89 between Middlesex and Montpelier declined 7 percent. This stretch of interstate contains a minimum of short distance “local” traffic and mostly longer distance trips in the 40 mile Burlington-Montpelier corridor. Even a look at a longer interval shows a tiny annual 0.2% gain in traffic numbers starting 15 years ago in 1997 to April this year.
Another key question is how a decline of 225 commuters daily impacts the “peak” travel as commuter buses primarily service the 7-9 am and 4-6 pm peak hours, the times most traffic engineers look at because these are the “congestion” hours on the highway system. Again, what is the the impact of 225 commuters switching from car travel? Assume half switched to a Link service versus a solo drive and the other half from a carpool of three—the impact of those 225 represent a 9% decline in peak hour travel on I 89 between Middlesex and Montpelier where 12-month daily traffic numbered 24,151 this April. The idea that the rugged individual Vermonter would never give up the sacred car to take a bus to work truly belongs to the mythology of yesteryear. (Note all 225 commuters are ascribed to a peak period of 10% of total travel in one direction.)
In summary, the daily 22 Link commuter service buses in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor clearly contribute to the depressing or declining of I 89 traffic numbers and that impact amounts to a sizable proportion. Transportation planners and policy makers mostly gave lip service in the past to “demand” management centered on employer programs and public transit impacting car travel, often dismissing impacts as being insignificant, most probably in the low single digit territory—no more! Those assumptions must deal with the new reality that public transportation and programs to divert workers from solo driving can and are having a substantial impact. And workers and employers alike seek alternatives to costly commuting by car. With Vermont car traffic expected to drop slightly this decade that decline will likely be accelerated by growing efforts of employers and public programming aimed at reducing commuting costs, saving energy and cutting pollution. Alternatives to solo driving offer less stressful and safer travel choices. It is apparent expanding public transit makes employment and businesses accessible to a working population increasingly resistant to using an automobile to get from here to there.