Tunnel Vision: What TRAFFIX Doesn’t Tell You

June 30th, 2010 by Kim Lenz

I’d seen the billboards. I’d heard the ads on radio, advertising a “cure for the common commute.” And as a four-day-a-week commuter, I was dying to know what TRAFFIX was all about.

It took some doing.

When I first started writing Tunnel Vision, I thought it would make a good column. So I went online to find out that TRAFFIX is a cooperative public service designed to promote transportation alternatives.

It’s staffed by employees of Hampton Roads Transit, but has its own funding source, and an advisory board comprised of representatives of each of the area’s transportation planning groups: HRT, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission; Hampton Roads Transit; the Virginia Department of Transportation; the Federal Highway Administrator; the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation; and the localities of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach.

I arranged for an email interview with a TRAFFIX official. I forget his name, and here’s why – he didn’t answer my questions. A follow-up email met with no response as well.

I moved on to other commuting ideas. Heck, it’s not hard to come up with an idea a week for a column about commuting in Hampton Roads.

But I’d periodically see TRAFFIX displays at local businesses, and the odd billboard, so I tucked it away in my Tunnel Vision to-do list.

During Williamsburg’s Roll and Stroll to Work Day earlier this month, I ran into a publicist from TRAFFIX, who was handing out pamphlets and pens with the organization’s logo.

So I lined up another interview through her, this time with TRAFFIX director Ron Hodges. I asked some fairly pointed questions about the uphill climb the organization faces, promoting ways to get to and from work besides driving your own car, solo (which TRAFFIX cheekily calls SOVd, Single Occupancy Vehicle Disorder).

I labeled it an uphill climb, because have you commuted here? I can’t imagine there’s an urban area in the Eastern United States less equipped to provide alternate means to get to work. There’s no fixed rail (yet!), little commercial or residential density, and municipalities appear openly hostile to bicyclists.

So I sent my questions. And waited.

Two weeks later, the answers from Hodges couldn’t have been more perfunctory.

When I asked about combating that “uphill climb” to educate motorists, Hodges wrote that: “Actually, we really aren’t trying to combat this. What I mean by that is that a primary goal is to educate people about alternative transportation. To show them what it does for the environment, what it does for them financially, how it minimizes the stress of the drive to work, how they can be rewarded by curing their SOVd, etc. Also, showing them it’s safe to go online and sign up. Then we’re here to take the calls when the gas prices go up and the riders “feel” the pain. From a government perspective, the region looks to TRAFFIX to help keep EPA air quality standards lower than what they would normally be. The region actually invests in this.”

Color me underwhelmed.

Hodges did provide me with numbers that show TRAFFIX has increased its “customer” base more than tenfold between 2007 and 2009, claiming to have prevented 100 million tons of carbon-related products from being airborne over the last three years.

Still, taking credit for 140,000 trips of alternate commuting in a year – using methods such as telework, ride share and leased vans – sounds solid enough, except when you consider that according to VDOT, as many as 100,000 vehicles pass through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel every day in the summer.

So I went on the TRAFFIX website again, and you know what? They have some very innovative services.

For example, under Guaranteed Ride, TRAFFIX offers emergency transportation assistance to commuters who rideshare to work. Once you’re registered, if you ever have to unexpectedly leave work early or stay at work late, you can get a ride back to your point of origin for just $3, guaranteed.

The website also has an SOV Calculator, to attempt to demonstrate to motorists just how much it’s costing in time, money and vehicle wear to drive their own car, solo, to the office every day. I didn’t do the SOV Calculator, because I didn’t want to start crying.

Finally, there’s an incentive program called NuRide, which gives commuters the opportunity to earn gift certificates from local businesses for using alternative means of commuting to work. In fact, telework is one of the ways commuters can get rewarded. Since I telecommute on Fridays, I’ve already cost myself a few Starbucks gift certificates by not yet signing up.

That’s the point, I guess. Yes, TRAFFIX has an uphill climb, as I call it, to convince commuters here to change their behavior. But it’s worth the try, wouldn’t you say?

Brendan O’Hallarn writes Tunnel Vision on WYDaily. If you have commuting column ideas for him, write him at brendan@wydaily.com.

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