Post #374: Behavioral modification for Maple Avenue traffic

Posted on September 6, 2019


(Photograph taken from the website of the Ohio Department of Transportation).

The gist of this post is the following:  Maybe we could reduce some of the peak-period congestion on Maple by changing driving behavior.  First, maybe  dynamic messaging signs could “push” the message to drivers that they might be better off going around Vienna rather than going through it, under certain traffic conditions.   Second, possibly, through use of traffic cams and dedicated smart phone apps, we could “push” a message to Town residents to avoid doing their shopping during peak weekend traffic periods.

This is such an oddball idea, and one with so little available data, and so little prior discussion that I have seen, that I’m just going to describe what I mean, and leave it at that for now.  Obviously, that Town would have to make the investment to implement either of these.

AM traffic diversion device at Maple and Nutley.

First, instead of the sign above, picture one across from McDonald’s, facing the AM traffic from Oakton.  It might show travel time to Tyson’s Corner Center via 123, and via Nutley/66.  It might do something more sophisticated, such as comparative travel times to several destinations.

But because it’s our sign, we’re only going to light it up when it shows that I-66 is the faster route.  In effect, we create an in-your-face message board that lights up a big right turn arrow, at Nutley, whenever through drivers would be better off taking I-66 than sticking with Maple.  (Psst.  Hey, buddy, take 66, it’s faster.)

Right now, just by chance, as I write this, the travel time from Oakton to Tyson’s Corner Center actually is faster via I-66.  Google Maps shows it as 15 minutes via Maple, and 14 minutes via Nutley/I-66.

Now, of course, anybody could query Google Maps and find this out on their own.  But I would wager that relatively few people do that, on the fly, during their morning commute.  Further, I imagine that most people have a more-or-less set commuting route that does not change day-by-day.  (Although I of course have no way to know either of those as facts.)  The advantage here is that this is “push”:  We push the information in front of the drivers’ faces, every day.  It takes no effort on their part, and they get the information whether they want it or not.

A key factor here is the expansion of I-66 that will occur over roughly the next three years.  If that’s successful, we will see increasing periods of time where the I-66 route will be faster than the 123 route.  And so if the I-66 project succeeds, this diversion device may become increasingly successful at convincing through traffic to avoid Maple during the AM commute.

Unfortunately, I can’t come up with any easy place to put an equivalent sign for the afternoon commute.  Or, at least, not any place within the Town of Vienna.  There’s no clear equivalent of Nutley, as the obvious turning point for I-66, coming in the other direction.  Possibly, if we can get them onto I-66 in the morning, they’ll come back on I-66 in the afternoon.

Stoplight app and traffic cam for weekend travel

Here I have in mind a smartphone app that provides the simplest sort of “stoplight” indicator about the current status of Maple Avenue traffic.  That is, just a little widget that sits in one corner of your phone’s home screen, showing a red, yellow, or green dot.  The color corresponds to how bad traffic is on Maple.  And then, separately, if you tap the dot, it brings up a (or several) traffic camera(s) to provide a picture of the current traffic on Maple.  So you can see for yourself.

Again, this is something that anyone can do, more-or-less, with Google maps.  The only hooks here are that a) this would always be on (the widget would be active on the phone’s home screen), and b) it automatically brings up the relevant traffic cam picture when you tap it.  (And the Town would, of course, have to install and run that traffic cam.)

The idea here is that if you are (e.g.) going to go grocery shopping on Saturday, every time you pick up your phone, you are given a reminder of the state of traffic.  Over time, and assuming a flexible schedule, you’d both use this to avoid driving into red-level traffic on Maple, and more subtly, you’d learn the rhythm of traffic and so begin to schedule around it.

At least, that’s the theory.

Why consider these?  Beggars can’t be choosers

In Post #331, I talked about the difficult constraints we face in trying to change Maple Avenue to reduce traffic congestion.  It’s difficult to think of any change to the infrastructure of Maple Avenue that both a) is feasible and b) would result in a significant reduction in traffic congestion.  Further, I would say that the Town’s “multimodal” study more-or-less validates that view of the situation, because I didn’t see much of value come out of that report (e.g., Post #362).

Further, it is generally under-appreciated that Vienna does not actually own Maple Avenue.  Route 123 literally belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Accordingly, any significant change that we might make on Maple must meet with approval by both the Commonwealth of Virginia and Fairfax County.  And, to put it simply, they are not likely to approve things that would further gum up traffic in this area, such as lowering the speed limit to encourage commuters to go elsewhere.

There also seems to be scant opportunity to divert car riders to other forms of transport.  Currently, during rush hour on Maple, based on the Town’s own traffic counts, 99% of the traffic is cars/trucks, 0.9% is people walking, and 0.1% is people bicycling.

This is all by way of saying that a “behavioral modification” approach may seem a bit far-fetched.  But only until you realize that, more or less, there are no other options on the table.  In that context, maybe this is worth considering.