A recent TPB traffic analysis showed that September is one of the worst months for traffic in the Washington area. It also showed that “September Shock,” the change from summertime traffic back to business-as-usual commuting, routinely results in jumps in travel delay of 15-45%.
The good news for drivers is that the region has many more ways to get around besides driving alone, some of which can help travelers avoid traffic altogether. On Thursday, September 22, the region’s ninth annual Car Free Day will give drivers a chance to try out those other options—Metro, local buses, commuter rail, bicycling, walking, teleworking, or even carpooling. Not only might it help drivers figure out new ways to avoid everyday traffic, it might also be a chance to learn how to adapt to highly disruptive events like severe weather, big public gatherings, or even transit system shutdowns.
Think back to March 16 of this year, when the entire Metrorail system shut down for a whole day for emergency safety inspections and repairs. Officials fretted that many who normally ride Metro would opt to drive instead, wreaking havoc on the region’s roadways. That prompted employers to allow more teleworking or to adjust employee schedules to avoid the worst back-ups. A TPB analysis showed somewhat higher volumes on the roads but lower-than-normal delays—thanks to increased teleworking and people seeking out other options like buses, carpooling, bicycling, and walking.
Similarly, when Pope Francis visited the region in September 2015, the TPB’s traffic analysts were able to show minimal traffic impacts on the days of the Pope’s public events. The reason? Employers allowed employees to telework, and those unable to work from home used other modes to get around.
And then, this year, faced with round-the-clock single-tracking and line segment shutdowns during Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance program, many regular Metrorail riders have had to figure out different ways of reaching their destinations. During some of the shutdowns, bus ridership on nearby routes has jumped significantly. Carpooling, bicycling, and teleworking have gone up, too. Not only will this year’s Car Free Day give drivers another chance to consider more eco-friendly or less stressful ways to travel, it might also help them prepare for future disruptions. Trying out a new mode now can help them become more familiar with how to do it so that they’re more comfortable doing it again in the future.
This potential for greater individual and collective resiliency adds urgency to the call to participate in this year’s Car Free Day. By working now to make new friends for a carpool, mapping out safe and convenient bike routes, or figuring out the neighborhood bus route, those who participate in Car Free Day will be developing their back-up plan for the times when major events make travel by car more difficult than they are willing or able to tolerate.