MISSOULA — Area transportation planners have spent years seeking ways to reduce the number of vehicle trips, especially those with a single person in the car, and with modest results.
But they may have found a promising solution in the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turns out, there’s more than one way to get to work.
Nelson-Nygaard, a national transportation firm drafting the update to Missoula’s Long Range Transportation Plan, told members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization that future transportation needs won’t look the same in the post-pandemic era.
While many sectors of the nation will be forced to adapt to a new normal, transportation won’t be any different. Americans are changing the way they work, shop and play, according to Jennifer Wieland with Nelson-Nygaard.
“When we start to talk to people about what it means to go back to work and how they envision themselves traveling, people’s mindsets are changing and they’re thinking very different about how that’s going to look,” said Wieland. “It’s an important part of what we’re trying to understand right now.”
Those drafting Missoula’s new transportation plan began exploring community values and existing conditions before the pandemic arrived. Sustainability, safety and access to work have emerged as the highest values, according to a recent transportation survey.
Capitalizing on existing opportunities while considering changing work habits could help shape the new transportation plan, even if some of those opportunities weren’t always a leading consideration.
“An important piece, as we’re in this time of COVID-19, is recognizing that travel preferences were shifting already and are going to continue to shift,” said Wieland. “While there’s a tremendous interest in Missoula in terms of active transportation and growing transit ridership, we’re hearing from folks across the county that the way they look at riding transit, the way they’re going to think about commuting, will be different in the coming months and years.”
The Missoula metropolitan region has grown 6% since 2010, and it’s expected to continue at that pace in the years ahead. Currently, around 71% of commutes are represented by a single person in a car, and transportation planners are looking to cut that number by 50% by 2045.
Stepping in that direction, the local transportation network has grown more diverse in recent years with new planning tools, such as complete streets, which make it safer and easier to commute by bike.
The city and county, along with area business partners, also have invested in public transit by making ridership free to all users. In 2014, before Zero Fare was introduced by Mountain Line, the bus logged around 914,000 annual riders. In 2018, it topped 1.6 million riders.
“You have so much high-quality infrastructure in place and great multi-model connections, and there’s an opportunity in this transportation update to focus on lower cost, higher impact projects and leverage a lot of the partnerships in place,” said Wieland. “This is really about affordability. It’s really about economic competitiveness and ensuring the region can continue to thrive.”
While efforts to expand the transportation grid with new commuting opportunities have helped move the dial, it has only moved a little, leaving the region far short of its ambitious goals to get cars off the street and reduce congestion.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and suddenly the streets were quiet and the air turned clear. It also became clear that telecommuting could play significant role in the region’s future transportation plan.
Some are calling it “mode split goal 2.0.”
“Telecommuting has long been the forgotten sustainable mode,” said Jordan Hess, a Missoula city council member who sits on the Metropolitan Planning Organization. “We have some real network advantageous that we can achieve through telecommuting. If a percentage of our workforce telecommuted once a week, that could be tedium progress on our stressed transportation network.”
Wieland said other regions of the county have also come to a similar conclusion. But as telecommuting emerges as a tool to reduce vehicle trips and congestion, saving governments millions of dollars in road construction, efforts must also be made to improve the region’s access to technology.
Equity emerges as a new concern.
“It’s not a realistic option for everyone – not just the folks who are required to be in an office, but also people who have poor internet connectivity and don’t have the right tech tools available,” said Wieland. “It’s a key piece of how we develop some of those strategies that do provide opportunities to reduce travel, but also make sure we can lift everyone up at the same time.”
Over the next few months, those crafting Missoula’s new transportation plan will begin to develop goals and identify priorities, along with key projects. A draft of the plan is expected by the end of the year with adoption likely next March.
While it wasn’t always part of the plan, telecommuting could find its way into Missoula’s transportation future.
“We would be remiss not to have that reflected in our future transportation planning,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.