Imagining Tomorrow’s Transit

Mobility Lab's Howard Jennings has a few thoughts on Metro, self-driving cars and alternative ways to commute.

Photo by Skip Brown

Name: Howard Jennings
Age: 70
Lives In: Alexandria, with his wife, Sarah Stott
Current Job: Managing director of Mobility Lab (, a transportation think tank funded by Arlington County Commuter Services, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Trans-portation. Launched in 1986, Mobility Lab uses a variety of methods to study “transportation demand management” (TDM)—making better public use of mass transit, ride sharing, walking, biking and teleworking as alternatives to driving alone. Its work includes a 2013 report on car sharing and a 2016 study of parking and travel in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

Urban minded: I’ve worked with a number of city and regional planning agencies over the years. I worked on Tobacco Row, a historic conversion of tobacco factories on the edge of downtown Richmond. From there, I was hired to be the assistant to the city manager of Richmond for downtown marketing. Then I was exposed to the local [transportation demand management] agency, Ridefinders, and took over as executive director. We put a lot of emphasis—even for a smaller city—on TDM in our downtown plan, realizing that you can’t build your way out of congestion.

On the forefront: Arlington has, for 40 years, been a leader in the development of transportation policies. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood once said that Mobility Lab “could be a pilot for the country.” The challenge is to keep the momentum going by incorporating new technologies in the smartest way.
Statistics matter: We calculated that on a typical workday, our services in Arlington County helped shed about 40,000 trips from vehicles into biking, walking, et cetera. That’s equivalent to seven lanes of urban highway. That was a real sort of landmark finding. We were probably the first in the country to quantify the impacts of commuter services in that concrete a fashion.

Day to day: Nowadays I do more of the national policy work. But I certainly want to continue working with Arlington to enable transportation services that provide better mobility for the county and all citizens. Not just the shiny new thing, but how do we take advantage of all the possibilities to develop the transit services of the future?

Beware of self-driving vehicles: It’s not so much whether communities are prepared for them—that’s part of it—but how well the vehicles are deployed. The convenience of self-driving cars is going to be so great that there’s widespread agreement they will induce a lot more trips—35 percent more, from one recent study I read.

Metro’s future: It’s not going to be as gloomy a picture in a year. People talk about the death spiral of Metro, which is a nice dramatic metaphor to get your attention, but it’s way too important to the region’s economy. My sense is, things will stabilize. Everybody has learned the lesson that public education campaigns are important to get people to understand the benefits. Safety issues are critical, and they’re addressing them. They won’t all be taken care of by SafeTrack [Metro’s recent emergency repair program]. It’s a crying shame that voters in the D.C. region didn’t approve the 2007 referendum for a new series of trains.

Going to camp: Each year we put on a transportation camp [the National Academies’ Transportation Review Board Conference, which convenes experts from around the world to discuss transportation policy]. It’s a fascinating group of real thought leaders, young and old. We call it an un-conference. Participants create sessions on the fly about what they want to talk about. It’s a great cauldron of energy and ideas.

On the grid: We also do a monthly Transportation Techies Meetup. We started it three years ago with nobody on a Saturday; now we’ve got 2,000 members in the database. It’s a great community of coders and people who are interested in technology doing eye-opening things. For example, they’ll have a “Day in the Life of Metro” with animated circles around each station representing boardings and de-boardings. Speed it up and you get this explosion of bubbles around Metro stations over time.

A car-free milestone: For my 70th birthday I took a 30-mile bike ride on the towpath up to Harpers Ferry.

Looking ahead: I’m not going to be around here forever, but I’m not on the way out the door. We’ve got a smart and dedicated staff. We’re having a lot of fun. It’s an exciting time to be in transportation, and Arlington’s a good place to be practicing this stuff.

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