Plenty of people complain about traffic congestion in Bethesda.
But despite the daily slog up Wisconsin Avenue or the lane closures and construction projects causing detours downtown, only some seem willing to ditch the comfort of their cars for other options.
That’s the constant challenge facing Kristen Blackmon and her staff at Bethesda Transportation Solutions, a division of the nonprofit, county-funded Bethesda Urban Partnership charged with getting cars off downtown Bethesda roads by encouraging biking, telework, the use of mass transit and other ways to avoid rush hours.
“No one wants to get on a bus and have no idea where they’re going to end up. We’ve had people tell us they’re afraid of putting their bike on the bus. They don’t want to look dumb or hold up the bus driver,” Blackmon said. “There’s this sort of barrier that we have to break, calming the fears.”
BTS works directly with Bethesda employers, serving as a middleman of sorts for negotiating the state’s Commuter Tax Credit process, which provides benefits to companies that offer transit subsidies. BTS helps businesses set up teleworking systems and even will act as a “commuter buddy,” a one-on-one consultation for commuters new to the bus system or bike routes.
Still, motivating employees to embrace alternative options is difficult, even as America’s car-based culture declines.
“One of the biggest things employers tell me is, ‘What can you tell me that I can tell my employees to get out of their car that I’m not already doing,'” said BTS outreach representative Derrick Harrigan, who acts as a face-to-face liaison to Bethesda businesses. “They could be providing a subsidy already and just not getting a lot of people using it.”
“It starts with one day,” said communications specialist Jennifer Zucker. “We just get them to try it one day. Give it up one day and go from there.”
BTS hosts a Walk and Ride Challenge in the fall and a Bike to Work Day in May, events designed to encourage a different approach to a daily commute.
A recent U.S. Census American Community Survey showed of 30,703 Bethesda residents aged 16 and older, 58 percent drive to work alone, 16.6 percent use public transportation, 6.6 percent carpool and 5.7 percent walk to work.
Blackmon and BTS uses Montgomery County’s annual commuter survey, which has consistently put the percentage of commuters carpooling or using other transportation options around 36 percent. That’s among the highest rates in Montgomery County, thanks to Bethesda’s downtown atmosphere and proximity to Metro stations.
And there’s hope that percentage can improve. Montgomery County is planning to introduce 11 Capital Bikeshare stations in Bethesda this summer, an encouraging prospect for BTS, which has offered assistance with finding Bikeshare locations.
The group will set up in a downtown office lobby on a weekly basis, passing out brochures and providing other information to employees. Much of their pitch revolves around the cheaper cost of driving alternatives and avoiding the stress that can come with finding a parking space in a downtown garage.
Convincing drivers to act on their traffic angst is the challenge.
“There’s a tipping factor in people’s minds,” Blackmon said. “I think in our area, it’s the stress. I really hear about people being late to work because of traffic congestion. People figure out, ‘You know, I don’t want the stress.”