Arlington County First in Nation with Program to Ease Public-School Staff Commutes

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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The only transportation demand management (TDM) program for public school faculty and staff in the U.S. has been created in Arlington County, Virginia.

The program, called “ATP Schools,” is being administered by Arlington Transportation Partners (ATP), the employer-outreach arm of Arlington County Commuter Services. Funded by a grant from Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation, it is aimed at reducing the drive-alone rate of the more than 5,000 employees of Arlington Public Schools (APS), one of the top employers in the county.

Not only is ATP Schools the only district-wide TDM program in the country targeting school staff, but there is a large unmet local need for the service. According to research performed by Toole Design Group in a survey called APS GO!, the drive-alone rate for Arlington Public Schools staff is a surprisingly high 88 percent, compared to 53 percent for the county overall.

When it comes to schools, jurisdictions have typically focused their TDM efforts on student trips. These efforts, under the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, encourage students to walk or bike to school. ATP Schools is a natural complement to a student-based TDM program.

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By reaching out to APS teachers and staff using its business-to-business model for TDM, ATP has a good chance of switching many of these solo drivers over to more sustainable options, such as biking, transit, or carpool.

The model has worked well for the county in the past. Arlington officials point to TDM as a key variable that has allowed the county to add tens of thousands of new residents over the last decade without adding traffic to its arterial roadways.

TDM, a set of strategies to reduce automobile congestion by educating people about transportation options, could also help ease “congestion” of another sort — inside the walls of the county’s public schools themselves.

Arlington has been grappling with overcrowding in its public schools of late. This year alone, school enrollment in Arlington increased an unprecedented 5.2 percent, and the county’s 36 schools are unable to accommodate all of them.

While Arlington comes up with alternatives to accommodate the 1,300 new students projected through 2019 — plans that include school expansions and at least one entirely new building — constructing its way out of this problem isn’t a long-term solution.

With a dearth of new land to build upon, Arlington’s land-use decisions must be deliberate. Without TDM, new construction and expansions would require more parking and add more congestion. In conjunction with TDM, on the other hand, it is possible that existing surface parking could be reclaimed for more productive uses, such as school expansions accommodating more students on the same amount of property.

The county’s schools have some specific challenges that make TDM difficult. For instance, many Arlington schools are in areas not readily accessible by Metro. And for elementary-school teachers who often cart materials to and from school, transit is a less-attractive commuting mode. Additionally, bus service to some schools is spotty.

Elizabeth Denton, the business-development manager in charge of the ATP Schools initiative, is sensitive to the needs of the teachers and school staff. “We don’t want to add one more requirement on teachers who are already stressed out. Rather, we intend to frame this program as something that helps the schools, and something that is fun.”

In addition to getting buy-in from APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy, Denton plans on eliciting support from the Arlington School Board. So far, in the very early stages of the program, she has visited about a dozen area schools.

She sees healthy competition, for which APS schools are known, as a way to build excitement and motivate staff to participate in the program. She plans to engage staff with a “School Champions” awards program patterned off the Champions program developed by ATP for businesses located throughout the county.

Finally, Denton plans to boost the program with environmental messaging, which she says is an important motivational factor for this particular Arlington audience. APS is a “green” school system, having been ranked second nationally in green-energy usageby the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In many ways, the dynamics of Arlington Public Schools mirror that of the county as a whole: a population that’s bursting at the seams, with overburdened infrastructure and limited resources. These issues may not be universal, but TDM as a way to combat them — and gain more utility from the existing infrastructure — certainly is.

How is your school system growing sustainably? Could TDM help your school grow?

Photos of Arlington schools courtesy of K.W. Barrett and the U.S. Department of Agriculture

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