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Austin commuters would pay $12 an hour to reduce travel time, survey shows

The average Austin-area commuter is willing to pay $12 to save an hour of commute time, according to a survey conducted by Dr. Chandra Bhat, transportation engineering professor and the Abou-Ayyash Professorship Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin.

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AUSTIN, Texas—The average Austin-area commuter is willing to pay $12 to save an hour of commute time, according to a survey conducted by Dr. Chandra Bhat, transportation engineering professor and the Abou-Ayyash Professorship Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin.

The finding is one of many from the survey, conducted December 2003 through March 2004.  The survey tried to determine what would lure commuters out of their cars and into public transportation, helping reduce traffic on Austin’s clogged roadways.

Austin was recently cited as most congested among similar-sized cities, according to the 2004 Urban Mobility Report, with commuters spending about 31 percent more time in traffic during rush hour than less busy times. By comparison, commuters in the much larger Dallas-Fort Worth area, population four million, spend 34 percent more time in traffic during peak conditions.

Bhat’s Web-based survey drew almost 800 people. He prepared the data and weighted those responses to represent the general commuter population of Austin based on the city’s worker distribution of race, income, sex, household size, household type and commuting travel choice. His release of the results corresponds to the beginning of Commute Solutions Month, a Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization voluntary initiative advocating employee commuter benefits.

Bhat found that the increasing diversity in Austin household structures is increasing the amount of non-work stops commuters make to and from work. In other words, households are not very nuclear anymore, Bhat says. There are single-parent households, those where both parents work, etc.—which means commuters are cramming all their errands into the time of day they’re already in their cars for a long time: their work commute.

By making these stops during congested travel times, commuters are making a bad time to travel worse. Bhat found non-work stops, such as child care drop-off, grocery shopping or exercising at a gym can have significant implications in peak travel levels and overall air quality.

“An increasing number of two-adult, two-worker families and working single parent and/or working single adult families use these roads,” he says. “Because of schedule and time constraints, people in these households are chaining non-work activities with their commute to be more efficient, making them more reliant on cars. The important point is that the commute trip serves multiple purposes today for many families, and so divorcing the commute trip from non-work activities pursued during the trip is inappropriate. In particular, it is important to coordinate land-use planning with transportation actions to alleviate traffic congestion.”

An example of this, he says, would be to implement a reliable form of public transportation that is coordinated with the land use around its stops. For example, a commuter rail would be built near a shopping center that includes, among others, a grocery store, a post office, a bank and a child care facility. Developers could also make sure restaurants and other places people might go during lunch are within walking distance of the workplace, reducing the need for a car.

Another way to help reduce traffic, he says, is for employees to be allowed to work at home. Right now, only 2.5 percent of Austin workers work at home on any given work day. He says the technological nature of jobs in Austin offers ample opportunities for telecommuting.

Bhat also found that commuters are not only concerned with their average travel time, but also on the reliability of their mode of transportation, especially if they have an inflexible work schedule. This means Austin commuters would consider two travel modes equally: one that usually gets them to work within 30 minutes but can take up to 50 minutes on certain days, and one that usually takes 45 minutes but promises to get the commuter to work within 50 minutes every day. The finding is important in the context of considering strategies that focus on making the transportation system more reliable, such as a commuter rail system. His study also examined the potential effects of toll roads.

Overall, Bhat says addressing traffic problems in Austin requires a multi-faceted plan.

“It’s next to impossible today to resolve Austin’s traffic congestion problems solely through a single transportation strategy, such as road building or tolls or commuter rail,” he says, “because of the high number of commuters who drive alone and the fast growth of Austin. In fact, it’s almost impossible to even maintain today’s congestion levels in the future by focusing on only one strategy. By combining several transportation and land-use policy actions, there is potential to make a tangible reduction in traffic congestion levels.”

The entire report can be viewed on the Web: Austin Commuter Survey (Word format) and Austin Commuter Survey (PowerPoint format).

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.