By Michael Brenneis
In one sense, departments of transportation are in the business of making it possible for people to travel less, or to at least spend less time traveling. But choosing to build capacity and reduce delay effectively speeds up drivers rather than shortening the length of their trips—in an era when driving less is acknowledged as a first–order climate change mitigation strategy. A recent article in Planetizen proposes a solution. If efforts were focused more on allowing people to conduct their daily affairs—shopping, banking, working, health care—over the internet or on the phone, the author writes, it might make a dent in vehicle miles traveled (VMT): a reduction that decades of tepid investment in multimodal options have not been able to achieve.
Advocates’ and agencies’ efforts are largely focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, but the full range of externalities includes particulates, “vehicle noise, travel-associated safety risks, and the impact of physical infrastructure on communities and the natural and built environment, including the social fabric of some communities.” So “what better way to mitigate the externalities of travel than to avoid having to carry out the travel?” says the author.
Stephanie Pollack, former MassDOT Secretary, hinted at this paradigm. As The Herald News reported, she considered that a post-COVID world might be one in which people:
“embraced working from home and adjusted to virtual doctor appointments and grocery deliveries. Pollack said MassDOT needs to probe to what degree those habits, which she dubbed “not travel,” will stick.”
Telework is often framed in terms of decreased transit. Pollack suggested that if these habits stick, transit agencies could change their service models to serve users by getting them to their daily needs, that may not include commuting, while also serving essential workers who rely on transit, and others who may travel off-peak.
There’s also evidence that using multiple VMT reduction strategies simultaneously is additionally efficacious—although these Swedish researchers didn’t look at online alternatives to travel specifically. As featured recently on the Streetsblog The Brake podcast, they did conclude that offering free transit while charging for parking at workplaces, for example, is an effective combination of interventions to incentivize people to not drive. Examining online alternatives to travel using this framework might yield interesting results.