PRTC: New experiments in getting residents to work

  • Author: Andrew Carpenter
  • Date: September 27, 2018

As mobility managers know, not only does every community have unique challenges when it comes to mobility, these challenges shift and change over time making mobility a constantly moving target.

In Prince William County, Virginia, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) works to move a growing number of residents into and out of nearby Washington, D.C., for work. As the county continues to urbanize, the agency also has to address the fact that the population is growing, its behavior is changing, and the area’s infrastructure is strained to capacity, especially during rush hour.  For residents to reach their jobs and other life events, PRTC plays a growing role in providing an alternative to sitting in traffic as residents hope to ease the strain of moving around.

As these changes occur, instead of doing business as usual, PTRC has decided to begin experimenting. Though it isn’t always easy to do so – nobody wants to fail with public dollars – leadership within the organization is aware that some of the challenges that are rising to the forefront cannot be address with traditional options. The agency is actively working to do something about it.

Two upcoming programs created in response to these challenges are worth watching for mobility managers to consider in their own communities.


Pool party

First, PRTC is exploring flexible vanpooling, which would encourage more people to share their rides into the city, both reducing the number of vehicles on the clogged highways and giving pooled commuters access to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes: dedicated road space that solo drivers can pay to use for express travel, or shared rides can use for free.

Traditionally, vanpool members are locked into the same ride, with the same people and schedule. This model leaves commuters beholden to a rigid timeline that often does not reflect their actual mobility needs. Therefore, many potential users do not consider this a viable option, especially as the modern workplace becomes more flexible. Commuters need their options to reflect the daily shifts in their schedules, and traditionally address this by ignoring vanpool options and driving their own cars.

With this in mind, PRTC wants to encourage more ride pooling, and plans to do so by establishing a flexible network of vanpool members. Commuters would sign up for a specific van as their regularly scheduled ride into and out of D.C., but if their schedule changes or if they telework once per week, they are able to change their seat to a different van for that specific day. In addition, the software used to facilitate these groups would allow those who “slug” – a unique D.C. commuting mode – to join an official vanpool for a day if they need a more reliable ride.


Streams and rivers

A more challenging task that multiple communities of all shapes and sizes, including those served by PRTC, are trying to tackle is how to feed dispersed residents into high-capacity transit lines.

PRTC runs large commuter buses along the HOT lanes into D.C. as one option for commuters to reach their jobs. The problem the agency and its passengers face, though, is that parking lots to access the buses are already at capacity, and there are no other options to reach these buses. This essentially serves as a cap on ridership that does not need to exist, especially as the county braces for extensive highway construction that will make driving in and out of D.C. even more miserable and unpredictable.

Instead of only building more parking spaces (though the agency is also working on that), PRTC is exploring their best options for establishing microtransit service to connect subdivisions with the bus lines, allowing passengers to leave their cars at home.

Like most other communities who have experimented with microtransit, PRTC is not entirely sure what the most effective approach will look like; however, the important takeaway is that they are experimenting and exploring a number of potential options.


Spirit of experimentation

What mobility managers should take away from these examples is that PRTC is actively experimenting with new ideas to better serve the community’s mobility needs. Though it isn’t clear how their trials will work out, the agency is aware that the only way to solve some of their growing mobility problems is to put out services and learn from what happens.

It can be difficult to build support for this – potential failure is scary, and a lack of immediate success can be seen as a waste of precious dollars – but taking these chances is necessary. Leaders in PRTC are building a culture of innovation to loosen this fear of failure and to encourage new thoughts on resolving other local mobility issues.

These changes to the previously rigid structure of commuting patterns have the potential to make a significant difference in the county’s livability and open access to jobs or other resources that residents previously struggled to reach. And if that potential is not realized, mobility professionals can learn from failure, too, and use it to inform future efforts to get people where they need to go.


NCMM loves to cover experimental mobility practices. If you feel that you have or know of a mobility program worth highlighting, please reach out.

Want to learn more about how your mobility management program can learn from this experimentation? Please reach out! We’d love to work with you to foster a similar culture of innovation within your community.

Image Credit: NCMM


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