Photo by James Lee on Flickr.

Trends indicate that Americans are driving less and have diminished interest in owning a car. But what happens when the transportation modes they switch to become as crowded as the highways they left?

In the United States, we usually focus on gridlock and time lost while driving, the “primary mode” for a majority of commuters. For me, and for a growing number of people, driving alone is the “alternative mode” of transportation, a term traditionally used to describe transit, biking, and walking.

Meanwhile, my primary modes of transportation are increasingly congested. I stand in crowded buses and Metro cars, jostling around to let fellow passengers on and off, nearly falling over as I try to read a book or edit a report for work. In order to relieve congestion on all modes, we have to change the way we talk about congestion.

In 2008, Washington D.C.‘s Metro identified multiple stations where platforms are overcrowded or will soon be overcrowded, and one of the main purposes of Metro’s Momentum plan for investment through 2025 is to relieve crowding in the system’s core.

The rapid roll out of bicycle infrastructure in the region is also suffering from success; heavy volume on the 15th Street and L Street cycletracks, as well as where the Custis Trail hits Lynn and Fort Myer in Rosslyn frequently causes backups for me and, based on the queues of cyclists that I see, many others.

Day after day, my colleagues and I at Arlington County Commuter Services send the message that, as transportation demand management (TDM, or mobility management) professionals, we make the transportation system work better. Yet our key measure of success is based on only one portion of the transportation system: the number of automobile trips that we shift off of the road network each day and on to other modes (see graphic below).

When TDM/mobility management is practiced with the goal of removing single-occupancy-vehicle (SOV) trips from the road, it can increase congestion for those of us who do not drive. Where is the TDM/mobility management for people like me?

Infographic from Mobility Lab.

As TDM/mobility management professionals and behavior changers, we must expand our horizons, and work to relieve congestion across all modes in the transportation network. If we do this, we can improve the commutes of the many individuals who, either by choice or by force of circumstances, do not drive. Focusing on all modes will keep our industry relevant for this growing segment of the population.

Using TDM strategies for other modes is not new. A London Underground poster from 1942, which encourages staggered work schedules in order to relieve crowding on the tube, is evidence of how to apply the active outreach and marketing that we use to shift SOV trips to transit.

In our own region, we already see transit-oriented TDM in the form of Capital Bikeshare, which is shifting trips off of the congested Metrorail system. Of course, Capital Bikeshare also suffers from congestion in the form of bike-rebalancing problems.

Broadening the TDM/mobility management industry’s sense of responsibility to include the efficiency of the entire transportation system will elevate the importance of transit, biking, walking, and sharing rides in conversations about transportation. Just as we need to eliminate use of the phrase “alternative modes” (“high-efficiency modes” instead?) and the implicit privilege that the phrase gives to driving, we need to stop considering automobile travel as the mode needing management with the support of other modes.

In addition to applying our toolbox of monetary incentives and outreach and education programs to other modes, we also need to measure our programs’ success against levels of transit congestion, bike congestion, and the flow of people regardless of mode. Why does this change in measurement matter? As the legendary 20th century management consultant Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets managed.”

The Texas Transportation Institute’s oft-quoted Urban Mobility Reports create buzz and urgency around reducing highway congestion, but we do not regularly talk (or generate panic) about congestion on other modes. In a recent Business Vancouver article, writer Peter Ladner observes that “while car congestion costs are consistently assessed and circulated, the costs of transit congestion are rarely measured and never discussed.”

Ladner notes that because the Vancouver public does not discuss transit congestion much, support for transit funding suffers. Thus, if researchers start making regular reports of congestion on other modes, then political support for funding TDM, transit, biking, and walking infrastructure could be easier to obtain.

A multimodal approach to congestion would be beneficial even in regions where there is little congestion on transit or in bike lanes; in a car-dependent region with heavy road congestion and low bus ridership, for example, showing volume and delay on both modes side by side could spark conversations about shifting travel from one mode to the other.

Make no mistake, reducing SOV trips (a “low-efficiency mode?”) remains an important and valid TDM/mobility-management goal, and I am proud of the work that Mobility Lab is doing to estimate the number of drive-alone (or SOV) trips that Arlington County Commuter Services takes off of our region’s roads. These estimates allow us to compare more readily our work to that of road and transit builders, and I cannot yet offer a comparable equation or method for evaluating our work on the basis of all modes.

However, getting to an efficient, multimodal future requires us to become truly multimodal. In order to advance our efforts we, as the people who create behavior change, need to look at ourselves, and change our own behavior.

Crossposted at the Mobility Lab blog.

Stephen Crim is research director at Mobility Lab. An urban planner at heart, he is passionate about improving travel options that reduce automobile dependence. He is a former board member of Ride New Orleans and holds degrees from MIT and NYU.