Low cost solutions to the transportation crisis


President Obama has proposed billions of dollars for rebuilding America’s transportation infrastructure. Many others, including the America 2050 project, have very thoughtful plans for more intelligent transportation networks that will enable America to be globally competitive. As a person who has been a strong advocate for transforming our transportation infrastructure, I could not agree more with the goals of better use of our transportation infrastructure and more public transportation in place of single-occupant vehicles. The one place in which I might take a different view from those who advocate building new transportation systems is that I believe we need to repair, maintain and getter better yield from what we have.

However, I also believe that we could reduce the stress on our transportation systems with three non-transportation initiatives, all of which are far less expensive to implement than building a lot of new transportation infrastructure.

Reduce work-related travel

Since I left Pitney Bowes two years ago, I have not commuted daily to an outside office. As a result, I have not contributed to the clogging of our highways during peak commuting hours. The reason is that the Internet and mobile technology available makes face-to-face meetings less necessary. Partial telecommuting is an easy solution to creating more transportation capacity with what we have.

In my last few years at Pitney Bowes, we moved more call center workers back into their homes, which reduced our real estate footprint, improved morale, and increased productivity, since individuals were never late for work when they did not have to travel. We never eliminated the commute to work completely, because we found that individuals who came to the office once every two weeks maintained a connection to their co-workers, but they did not have to be in the office every day. Many more jobs can be restructured to reduce daily commuting, especially jobs that do not require retail contact with customers.

Increase deliveries in place of face-to-face pick-ups

I am pleased to see that, even in our suburban area, more restaurants are making delivery services available. It used to be the case that only pizza stores delivered, but today Chinese, Japanese, and other restaurants deliver. One delivery truck substitutes for 5-10 cars coming to the restaurant.

In our town, the dry cleaner services deliver. The independent pharmacy delivers to senior citizens. Many people get grocery deliveries because they work long hours. The delivery of items to multiple people saves on trips during the busiest parts of the workday.

Ride matching for trips to fixed destinations

One of the underused sources of reduced driving is ride matching. Ride-sharing and van pooling trips to work do not work as well as they used to because people work variable hours, have the need to leave the workplace during the day, and do not want to be dependent on others to get them to and from work.

However, I have often thought that going to and from airports is a great opportunity for ride matching. I drive alone to New York airports if I have a short trip and am returning to the same airport from which I am departing. However, I would be happy to drive someone else from my town going to the same airport if we were catching a flight at the same time.

The same thing is true with a trip to the train station for either a commute into New York, or an Amtrak trip to Washington or Boston. I could easily save one or more individuals the need to drive their own cars to the train station. They could share the parking fees with me.

Another opportunity is a ride matching system for sporting events like football and professional baseball games, films, plays, concerts, and other events where many people are going to the event at the same time and will be returning home at the same time.

Unfortunately, the state of Connecticut Department of Transportation has not provided enough incentives for ride matching agencies to do their job in getting people together for these fixed-destination, fixed time trips. The limousine companies certainly will not tell anyone that someone else is going to the airport at the same time, because they lose revenue.

Surprisingly, large companies which have many people going to the airport at the same time also do not encourage ride matching because everyone going to the airport calls the limousine service separately.

Back in the 1980’s, I commuted between New York and Connecticut. There was no shuttle service between the Stamford train station and the office in those days. I would start walking, and people from the company would pick me up. I made many friends from the company, and ended up with great learning in the process.

If we can have match.com or eharmony.com, we should be able to get people together who are going to the same place to share a ride.

One of the reasons ride matching systems have not worked is that they have been marketed as being good for the environment, not that they save wear and tear on cars, gas, tolls, and parking fees. The other thing they save for trips to the airport is even larger bus or limousine service fees. Frankly, I am surprised that firms like Travelocity.com have not found a way to match people from the same geography who are flying from a particular airport at the same time, and to collect a fee from each of them for saving them the higher individual commuting fees they would have paid. In a place like New York City, they might very well be in the same building or next door to each other.

Summary comments

These ideas will not solve the transportation crisis, but they will reduce the strain on our system, and they will change commuting and travel patterns sufficiently that they may end up changing the planning for the network of the future.