Research: An On-Going, Integral Part of the Commuter Services Program
“The research is the lifeblood of our program”, remarked Arlington County Commuter Services Bureau Chief Chris Hamilton in a recent strategy session. In many ways, this is true, as our on-going research program, now in its sixth year, serves many vital purposes. We use our research findings for such things as demonstrating the benefits of our services to employers and funders. Our Transportation Division director uses it regularly to document the success of the County’s transit-oriented development policies. County Board members cite it in justifying funding for Commuter Services. Far from sitting on the shelf, our research program is a living part of our whole TDM program which we use to evaluate our customer service, to inform our annual strategic plan and monthly work plans, and to craft our marketing messages.
In 2006 we realized we had plenty of data on what we were doing: number of sales visits to employers, number of customers served in our Commuter Stores, hits to our websites, etc. But we didn’t really know what impact we were having: how many commuters did we shift from SOV to other modes, how many miles of travel did we reduce, or what did our customers think of our services? Nestled in the core of the Washington, DC metropolitan area, Arlington is small in population, but a major employment center of 212,000 jobs, attracting commuters from the entire region; so we wanted information on our regional customers as well.
Summary of Key Impacts
On the average workday in 2010, Arlington County Commuter Services (ACCS) reduced traffic in Arlington by helping people switch from driving alone to taking transit, carpooling, vanpooling, walking, biking, or teleworking (numbers rounded).
- Daily trips reduced: 40,000
- Daily vehicle miles traveled reduced: 640,000
- Annual fuel savings: 6.8 million gallons
- Annual greenhouse gas reduction: 72,000 tons
Comparison of scale: One lane of urban Interstate highway typically carries 4,000 – 6,000 vehicles in the rush period, illustrating the magnitude of community benefit produced by TDM – equivalent to 8 – 10 lanes of Interstate highway.
We wanted research that could answer these questions with credibility and which could also help us in refining our current programs and identifying the need for new or different services. We wanted a consultant who really understood market-based product development, customer service, and the TDM industry. In the end we hired two: Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond, Virginia, and LDA Consulting of Washington, DC, who first helped us develop a strategic plan for our research. The planning process became a very hands-on, intensive evaluation of our program with active involvement of all our management team. Together we laid out our many target audiences, the survey methodologies to reach them, analysis techniques to document the benefits, and a multi-year schedule to phase the work to cover our comprehensive array of services within budgets we could afford.
This process and the results have been of huge value to us from the very onset, so much so that the research process has been institutionalized as an integral, on-going program within our Commuter Services Bureau. It has also come to be recognized by the rest of the larger Transportation Division as an important source of strategic level information benefiting all of Arlington County’s mode services. An important by-product of the research program thus has been to substantially raise the credibility and role of TDM as a major player in the County’s transportation program.
Monthly research team meetings have become a staple of the bureau’s operations. Most of our senior management is at the table as we review new survey results, evaluate what the data means for our program operations, and plot new strategies for research and services. Our TDM research spending each year is approximately 5% of our total budget – a rule of thumb in line with private industry practices.
Given that the goal of our research is to evaluate the response of our customers to our services and to quantify benefits to the community, we are engaged for the most part in primary research surveys to learn and evaluate what our constituents have to say. We also supplement our own surveys with those of other entities, such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Following is information on the key studies and the order in which they were done. We started with those that would tell us about our most essential audiences, the citizens of Arlington County and the business community. Summaries and details of all studies can be found at our online TDM Research Center which is intended to be a resource available to everyone www.commuterpage.com/research.
Each study gives us important information. Collectively they tell even more as they provide corroborating data, trends, and a multi-faceted look at our total TDM program. Core data collected for each audience includes commute mode choice, awareness and use of our programs, mode changes due to our services, satisfaction, as well as more detailed information unique to each service. Most surveys required 15 – 20 minutes to complete. This is longer than recommended for most survey topics; but interest in transportation is high; and people generally are willing to complete the surveys. A wide variety of survey techniques was used depending upon each program and scientifically valid ways available to reach its users.
Customer Touch-Points Analysis – How to be more Customer-Centric
As an early step in developing the Research Plan, we analyzed customers for each of our services: how they hear about us, examining each point of contact with our communications materials or staff, evaluating their “flow” through our services, service outcomes, better ways to retain them as customers, and how to measure the results at each important touch-point. This was a very valuable exercise for service improvement and for design of the surveys.
Arlington Residents Studies 2006 and 2009 and Residents Green Study 2009
Random digit dialing telephone survey for greatest statistical accuracy, supplemented in 2009 with short form to expand sample at lower cost.
Arlington Transportation Partners Employer Client Study 2007
Online survey of ETCs from Arlington Transportation Partners’ database.
Arlington Business Leader Study 2007
CEO/COO level executives – paper and online survey of list obtained from Chamber of Commerce
ACCS Commuter Stores Surveys 2007 and 2009
Brief intercept surveys of customers at four CommuterStores coupled with longer internet survey
ACCS CommuterPage.com Surveys 2007 and 2009
Pop-up surveys on main pages of web site
CommuterDirect.com Online Fare Purchase Service Studies 2007 and 2008
Online surveys of individual users and corporate users from customer database
Arlington STAR (Paratransit) User Satisfaction Survey 2008
Paper survey mailed to STAR user database
Arlington Transit Rider Survey 2008
On-board paper survey of ART bus riders
BikeArlington and WALKArlington Studies 2008
Online surveys of participants in bike and walk events plus program mailing lists
Commercial Building Survey 2008
Selected commercial buildings at varying distances from Metrorail, bus service, and urban centers: interviews of property managers, interviews of employers, online survey of employees.
ACCS Making an Impact Report 2008
Major report of ACCS services and benefits, including calculation of trips reduced, VMT reduced, fuel saved, and emissions reductions. An impact calculator spreadsheet model was developed based upon inputs from the prior surveys of programs. See results in call-out box above.
Selected Results, Impacts, and Benefits
Customer Feedback – Our Net Promoter Scores
One major and consistent finding has been that our customers greatly value our services, an extremely valuable piece of information for the County. Our Net Promoter Scores (percent of those who would recommend a service minus those who would not) compare very favorably with the best private industry leaders (source: Satmetrix, 2011Benchmark Study of U.S. Consumers).
Benefits to Residents and Commuters:
- 78% of Arlington residents are satisfied with the County’s transportation system and services, and the research documents that transportation satisfaction provides a direct boost in residents’ perception of their quality of life – a major finding for TDM. Also double digits higher than for most such studies in urban areas.
- 26% of Arlington residents used a service of Arlington County Commuter Services, and of those 40% took action to change their travel.
- 90% of Commuter Store customers had good experience in the store, and 12% switched mode due to Commuter Stores’ help.
- 55% of CommuterPage.com users made changes in how they travel to work since they first started using CommuterPage.com. CommuterPage.com was instrumental in 70% of those changes.
- 80% of Arlington Transit users are satisfied with the service.
- The success of Arlington’s multi-modal transportation system and TDM services are borne out on the ground. Traffic volumes on most major arterial streets in Arlington have either held steady or declined over the past ten years, in spite of major growth in employment and population and growing congestion in surrounding jurisdictions.
Benefits to Business
- 87% of Arlington business leaders say that Arlington is a good place to locate a business, and the more satisfied they are with the multi-modal transportation system and services, the more likely they are to cite Arlington County as a good place to locate a business.
- Arlington business leaders most often cite the quality of the transportation system and services as the leading reason they rank Arlington as a good place to locate a business.
- Arlington employers say commuting services result in significant benefits to their businesses, including improved employee morale, easier recruitment and retention, increased productivity, and less parking demand.
- At offices where commuting assistance services are offered, twice as many employees use mass transit or ridesharing and 30% fewer drive alone to work, compared to offices where commuting assistance is not offered.
- Residential Property Managers find that providing transportation assistance services helps them attract and retain tenants.
- Arlington County business leaders understand the importance of a comprehensive transportation system. They say the County should invest nearly 30% of its transportation budget in non-road transportation infrastructure and services and nearly 20% in information and support services (TDM).
Summary and Future Directions
To date the ACCS research program has documented a wide range of qualitative and quantitative benefits of TDM services to residents, employees and businesses. Perhaps most compelling is the direct boost that the transportation system and services provide to residents’ perception of their quality of life and to business leaders’ perception of the County as a good place to locate a business and their perception of TDM services as a direct benefit to their business operations. TDM is clearly established as an important tool of economic development in a region plagued by traffic congestion. These findings elevate TDM as a principal service benefiting the County’s most core missions to its citizens and businesses.
All of this has served to support continued growth of the ACCS program even in times of economic distress. Arlington’s pedestrian-friendly, multi-modal transit-oriented “urban villages” have proven to be among the hottest real estate locations in the DC region and the U.S. In part, because of its strong investment in multi-modal infrastructure and TDM services, Arlington is clearly well poised to support future growth and to maintain its market appeal without significant traffic increases.
Future ACCS research efforts will focus more fully on such topics as marketing to tech savvy creative-class professionals, building the culture of walking and bicycling as part of the successful urban environment, and documenting the return on investment in TDM. In particular we will seek to monetize the value of TDM in such areas as individual and public health, community and social benefits, safety, economic and business vitality, and transportation operations. We welcome collaboration with others working on similar issues of vital importance to American communities.