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Battling Congestion in Charleston Takes Tech, Behavior Change

The goal of increasing and maintaining a skilled workforce is prompting some in the South Carolina city to target the gnarled rush hour commutes. Local employers are leading the fight and turning to innovative ideas to make it happen.

by / June 4, 2019
The Charleston Regional Development Alliance in South Carolina has launched an initiative known as Reboot the Commute, a cache of traffic mitigation programs. Shutterstock/SP-Photo

Strong job growth leading to increased population has officials in the Charleston, S.C., metro region thinking seriously about controlling runaway traffic congestion.

The Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA), an economic development organization in the region, has launched an initiative known as Reboot the Commute, a cache of traffic mitigation programs ranging from van-pools to the development of a new bus-rapid-transit line intended to move buses out of crowded car lanes so that they can move past slow traffic.

The efforts are aimed at not only preserving quality of life, but also maintaining Charleston as a place attractive to both knowledge-based companies and the workers they employ.

“It started out as a conversation about the overall health and well-being of the community and our ability to sustain our economic growth. And then fairly quickly, it transitioned to a talent, attraction and retention discussion,” said Steve Warner, vice president of global competitiveness at CRDA.

Reboot the Commute was devised by roughly the top 20 employers in the region, which make up about 10 percent of the workforce. They include health care, utilities, academics and other sectors. Studies showed 81 percent of the region’s workforce commutes alone by car, and 61 percent of these commuters are traveling during peak rush hour, said Warner.

One approach was to look at methods to better distribute traffic so that so much of it is not occurring during peak rush hours. Changes like staggered start times, compressed work weeks, telecommuting and other approaches are being explored.

“If we can get just 4 percent of the people to change their behavior during peak rush hour, that would be enough to clear an entire lane of I-526, which is our new bridge and a main artery,” said Warner. 

The reduction would translate to 6,000 to 7,000 cars.

“What we discovered, pretty quickly, in working with these diverse companies, is we came quickly to understand that one size doesn’t fit all,” Warner added.

Which is why some large employers like the Medical University of South Carolina, which employs 14,000 workers, offer vouchers for riding the region’s public transit system.

The College of Charleston plans to introduce express shuttles with remote park-and-rides set up, “and they have a lot of use on that already,” said Warner. The local VA hospital has also launched a similar van-pool program.

Still, changing behavior will continue to be one of the biggest challenges to controlling traffic congestion, said Vonie Gilreath, mobility manager for the Lowcountry Go commuter program, which aims to connect commuters with a host of transportation solutions via a Web app.

“Lowcountry Go connects real people with real solutions and supports carpools, van-pools, public transit, walking, biking, emergency ride home, and many other programs that encourage behavior changes among commuters,” Gilreath explained.

Lowcountry Go will soon roll out a van-pool program aimed at manufacturing workers traveling to companies like Boeing, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz.

Meanwhile, other companies have hosted ride-sharing meetups, where workers from a particular ZIP code are familiarized with other workers living in that ZIP code, with the understanding of building car-pooling relationships.

In addition, Lowcountry Rapid Transit is in the planning process for a 23-mile bus rapid transit route along Interstate 26 connecting Charleston, North Charleston and Summerville, which would include about 18 stops. The project is expected to come online in the next four to five years. However, part of that project will be an education and messaging element, in an effort coax residents out of their cars and onto a bus.

“Very much a part of the conversation was, if we’re going to get people to change behavior, and make bus rapid transit really work for this community, we need to then start having that conversation about changing behavior,” said Warner. 

Ridership aboard buses operated by the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority has been mostly flat the last two years, say officials. The public transit system operates more than two dozen routes across the three-county region of more than 787,000 residents, expected to reach 1 million by 2029.   

The move to curb single-occupancy commutes in favor of a variety of shared mobility options in Charleston is not unlike similar trends seen in other parts of the country grappling with traffic concerns and maintaining desirability. 

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re attractive to talent, and that we can retain the talent,” said Warner. “And one of the data points we looked at is the drop-off in car ownership. And especially that millennial-high-skilled workers want to be able to bike or walk to work, or ride public transit.”   

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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