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FHWA Gleefully Declares That Driving Is Up, Calls for More Highway Spending

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA's own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels. Image: ##http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/travel_monitoring/14juntvt/figure1.cfm##FHWA##

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA’s own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels — even if you’re just looking at total miles-driven. Chart: FHWA

Well, so much for the predictions that changing preferences and new technologies will lead to a car-free utopia. The Federal Highway Administration announced last week that after nine years of steady decline, vehicle-miles-traveled in the U.S. was 1.4 percent higher this June than last June. Apparently, red-blooded Americans everywhere are finally getting back to their Hummer habit after a few years of diminished driving and rising transit ridership and bike commuting.

Except one thing: Driving is still way down from peak levels. While the FHWA’s press release trumpets that “American driving between July 2013 and June 2014 is at levels not seen since 2008″ — adding, alarmingly, a call for “greater investment in highways” — that’s not the whole story. Yes, the total driving rate now approximates where it stood in 2008, when VMT was in freefall. But it’s still way down from the peak — 3.05 trillion miles — in 2007.

Since the end of the recession, total VMT has fluctuated within a fairly constrained range, remaining well below the 2007 peak. And that’s just total driving. If you look at the per capita driving rate, it’s still dropping. In fact, it’s as low as it’s been in nearly 17 years.

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California Has Officially Ditched Car-Centric “Level of Service”

Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Changes in how the state manages transportation changes promise to drive it even lower. Photo: ##http://www.peaktraffic.org/graphics/vmt-california.jpg##Peak Traffic##

Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Changes in how the state manages transportation projects promise to drive it even lower. Graph: Peak Traffic

Ding, dong… LOS is dead. At least as far as the state of California is concerned.

Level of Service (LOS) has been the standard by which the state measures the transportation impacts of major developments and changes to streets. It is basically a measurement of how many cars can be pushed through an intersection in a given time. If a project reduced a street’s Level of Service it was considered bad — no matter how many other benefits it might create.

Under the previous CEQA regs, the transportation mitigation for a development such as this would have been sprawl-inducing road widenings. Image:##http://blog.archpaper.com/wordpress/archives/67469#.U-OVrI1dUs0##Arch Paper##

Until now, California regulations made it much easier to build this kind of sprawl than compact, people-friendly places. Photo: Arch Paper

Now, thanks to legislation passed last year and a yearlong effort by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), California will no longer consider “bad” LOS a problem that needs fixing under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). OPR today released a draft of its revised guidelines [PDF], proposing to substitute Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) for LOS.

In short, instead of measuring whether a project makes it less convenient to drive, the relevant question is now whether a project contributes to other goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing multimodal transportation, preserving open spaces, and promoting diverse land uses and infill development.

“This is exciting,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal and director of strategy at Nelson\Nygaard. “Changing from LOS to VMT does away with a contradiction that applicants currently face under CEQA. The contradiction between the state’s greenhouse gas reduction requirements and the transportation analysis requirements is no more.”

This revision in state law promises many positive changes.

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How Road Planners Fail Neighborhoods

Why do neighborhood groups — especially in low-income areas — have such a hard time influencing the design of major road projects? An interesting case study from the University of Colorado-Denver sheds some light.

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Image: Google Maps

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Photo: Google Maps

To examine the barriers to incorporating public health principles into transportation planning, researchers studied the Allied-Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, a disadvantaged but organized community.

Locals spent years preparing for the redesign of Verona Road, a wide street that carries 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles daily. Although Verona is a major, high-traffic road in the federal highway system, it functions not only as a thoroughfare for vehicles but also a community space, with residential development and neighborhood-serving businesses on both sides.

The study found that neighborhood residents had many concerns about the road, including difficulty and danger of crossing it, and that it was noisy and blighted. But they weren’t very successful at winning support for proposals that would address those concerns.

“Their main concerns were excluded,” authors Carolyn McAndrews and Justine Marcus wrote, “even if some of their ideas were adopted.”

The planning process itself — led by the state, which produced the official Environmental Impact Assessment — presented three major barriers for residents of the neighborhood:

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While the Economy Grows, Americans Continue to Drive Less

Americans have driven fewer miles per capita every year since 2005. Image: Doug Short

Americans have driven fewer miles per capita every year since 2005. Image: Doug Short

The last time the average American drove this little, Bill Clinton was president and Seinfeld was the most-watched show in the country. Not since 1994 has per capita driving been as low as it is now, according to new data from the Federal Highway Administration compiled by economist Doug Short.

Per capita driving has been on the wane for nearly nine years and now stands at 9.3 percent below the 2005 peak:

Population adjusted driving is going down, down, down. Image: Doug Short

Population adjusted driving is going down, down, down. Graph: Doug Short

The steady decline in the driving rate means that even as population increases, total motor vehicle travel has inched upward just 0.2 percent between March 2013 and March 2014. For five years, total driving has essentially flatlined, and in the last year Americans drove 2.47 percent fewer miles than in the peak 12-month period:

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Swapping Horses for Taxis Would Saddle CBD With Even More Gridlock

That didn’t last long. Last Thursday, less than 24 hours after a mayoral spokesman floated the idea of letting owners of the city’s 68 horse carriage medallions swap them for taxi medallions, Mayor de Blasio reportedly laughed off the notion.

Every additional cab in the Manhattan core imposes nearly $300,000 in congestion costs per year. Photo: ILMRT via Wikimedia Commons

A good thing, too. It’s generally poor policy to buy off one entitlement with another — not to mention dubious politics, given that taxi owners aren’t shy about litigating to protect their turf. Moreover, handing out new taxi medallions looks ill-advised from a traffic standpoint as well. Swelling the ranks of yellow cabs on city streets by as little as one half of one percent (i.e., adding 68 yellows to the current fleet of 13,605) — would have burdened bus riders, car drivers, truckers, and cab users with an estimated $20 million worth of recurring annual delay costs just within the Central Business District (Manhattan south of 60th Street).

That’s the tale told by my Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet. Longtime Streetsblog readers will recognize the BTA from previous posts covering proposals to toll the entrances to the CBD. But the versatile BTA spreadsheet can assess impacts of lots of other possible changes to the transportation status quo. One such change is adding taxi medallions. Another is eliminating the horse-carriage industry and freeing up CBD road space now occupied by the horses and cabs. Here I look at both.

Taxis first. Using the BTA, I calculate that a mere 68 additional yellow cabs would tack a “time surcharge” of 0.5 percent onto average daytime vehicle travel times across the CBD. Sound trivial? To the contrary,  over the course of a full year it adds up to almost 800,000 extra “vehicle-hours” to make the same trips. For users of buses, cars, trucks, and cabs, those hours translate to time costs of around $20 million a year, or nearly $300,000 a year per new cab — $800 per cab per day.

How can just 68 more cabs cause $20 million a year more collective delay? The answer lies in three observations about taxicabs and Manhattan’s Central Business District.

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The Fuzzy Math in the Road Lobby’s Memo to Congress

ARTBA would prefer that you not look too closely at this graph. Thank you for your cooperation. Image: Doug Short/##http://www.investing.com/analysis/vehicle-miles-driven:-another-population-adjusted-low-206969##Investing##

ARTBA would prefer that you not look too closely at this graph. Thank you for your cooperation. Graph: Doug Short/Investing

Don’t know what to make of the news that U.S. driving rates have dropped for the ninth year in a row? Looking for guidance about whether your state or city should be wantonly expanding roads or investing in transit, biking, and walking? The road lobby thinks you should turn to them for independent, unbiased analysis of these trends. Never fear, the road lobby says: Americans are driving more than ever. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. More lanes for everybody!

That’s the word from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which issued a memo Friday [PDF] to Congressional aides clarifying some “false claims” about transportation trends.

In virtually every recent congressional hearing and many media reports about federal transportation policy, the false claim that “Americans are driving less” emerges in some capacity. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show U.S. vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased 0.3 percent in 2012 and 0.6 percent in 2013. The upward trend is anticipated to continue well into the future as the nation’s economy and population continues to grow. This factual disconnect confuses discussions about the relative viability of various means to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund and support future federal highway and public transportation investments. The reality is that American driving trends are driven largely by macro-economic forces, not agenda-seizing assertions about shifts in societal behavior.

Take that, agenda seizers! See, VMT is increasing — albeit slower than the population, and slower than transit ridership. Drivers have already made up a third of the miles “lost” since the recession (and surely they’ll make up the rest any day now). The last 70 months of stagnant driving is nothing but a blip. Right?

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: U.S. DOT Fails to Get Travel Forecasting Right

The U.S. Department of Transportation seems to be stuck in a bizarre time warp.  For nine years in a row Americans have decreased their average driving miles. Yet U.S. DOT’s most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation’s transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030.

Times have changed. Why hasn't DOT gotten the memo? Image: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/5124536635/##Flickr/James Vaughan##

Times have changed. Why hasn’t DOT gotten the memo? Image: Flickr/James Vaughan

Just how out of whack is that forecast? Consider the following:

  • Vehicle travel hasn’t increased by even 1 percent in any year since 2004. Yet the U.S. DOT assumes that driving will increase at a rate significantly faster than that every year on average through 2030.
  • The new report uses for one of its two scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999.
  • In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn’t even get the past right. The report “projects” (based on 2010 data) that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone.

Why should we care about all this? With transportation funds increasingly scarce — and especially with Congress due to reauthorize the nation’s transportation law — policy-makers need good guidance about where to invest. A sensible approach, especially given the recent decline in driving and increasing demand for transit, would be to plow a greater share of those limited resources into expanding access to public transportation and active transportation modes while focusing highway spending on fixing our existing roads and bridges.

Instead, the U.S. DOT’s travel forecast is used as justification to propose a dramatic increase in highway spending to fund all the new and expanded highways that the DOT presumes we’ll need to accommodate all of those imagined new cars and drivers. The agency asserts that the nation would need to spend between $124 billion and $146 billion each year to maintain and improve the highway system — numbers that are sure to find their way immediately into highway lobby press releases and be repeatedly cited in congressional hearings.

What makes the DOT forecast so bewildering is that the agency — elsewhere in the very same document — acknowledges the strong possibility that many of the factors that have caused the recent drop in driving may be long-lasting. The report states:

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As Driving Continues to Stagnate, Some States Finally Start to Adjust

The Maryland Department of Transportation expected driving to continue on an optimistic upward trend after the recession ended. Now the state is reconsidering. Image: SSTI

In 2009, the Maryland Department of Transportation projected that driving would start to increase again after the recession ended. After driving continued to stagnate, the state reconsidered its traffic forecast. Image: SSTI

Another year, another decline in per capita driving. For the ninth year in a row, the cumulative distance Americans drive is down, adjusting for population, according to new data from the Federal Highway Administration. Total driving by all Americans has fallen about 2 percent since 2007 — or 7 percent per capita — and is lower than it was in 2005.

But a decade of stagnant driving came and went without major adjustments at most state departments of transportation — the agencies responsible for spending tens of billions of dollars in federal transportation funds each year. The typical state DOT still makes decisions based on models that assume driving will continue to grow forever. The result is billions of dollars spent on unnecessary roads.

But there’s some positive news on that front this week. At long last, according to the research team at the State Smart Transportation Initiative, some states are starting to adjust their traffic projections to better reflect reality.

Chris McCahill at SSTI writes:

Maryland is an example of this trend. In 2009, the state’s long-range plan projected statewide VMT [vehicle miles traveled] growth of 2 percent per year through 2030 [pictured above]. The plan dismissed the recent decline as a temporary consequence of high fuel prices and the economic downturn, asserting, “there is no clear evidence that Marylanders will continue to drive less in the future.” However, in its updated plan released just last month, the agency has left out projections entirely, declaring that “a return to strong annual VMT growth is unlikely and per capita VMT [...] is actually decreasing.” A handful of other states have either dampened their projections or shifted their focus toward VMT reduction goals and transportation demand management efforts.

McCahill says most states are still projecting that driving will start rising steadily again soon, despite mounting evidence that the recent decline signifies a long-term trend. But some are starting to see the writing on the wall.

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2013: Another Year of Falling Per-Capita Driving in U.S.

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group, where the author is a senior policy analyst.

The number of miles driven in the United States continues to stagnate, even amidst economic recovery, according to just-released figures from the Federal Highway Administration.

According to the agency’s December 2013 Traffic Volume Trends report, the number of vehicle-miles traveled on U.S. highways increased last year by approximately 0.6 percent – a rate of increase a tick slower than the 0.7 percent rate of population growth in the United States during 2013.

To put this in the context of longer-term trends:

  • The total number of vehicle-miles traveled in the U.S. remains about 2 percent below its 2007 peak. The number of miles driven in 2013 was lower than that of the 12-month period ending February 2005 – a nearly nine-year period of stagnation in total vehicle travel unprecedented in modern U.S. history.
  • The average number of vehicle-miles traveled per capita in 2013 was about 7 percent below its 2004 peak and was the lowest since 1996 – a roughly 17-year span of stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel.

Looking forward, continued stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel would have major implications for public policy:

  • Growth in traffic volumes would be insufficient to justify highway expansion projects in all but the fastest-growing areas.
  • Congestion in most areas would grow only slowly, and could largely be addressed through measures to improve the efficiency of the current transportation system (including by expanding access to public transportation and through the use of information technology and possibly pricing), rather than through costly capacity additions.
  • Revenue from fuel taxes would continue to decline as increases in driving fail to make up for improvements in vehicle fuel economy (and for the impacts of inflation in places where gasoline taxes are not indexed).
  • Increasing highway “user fees” – gas taxes, tolls, VMT fees – to recover that lost revenue would likely further depress vehicle travel by increasing the cost of driving.

With Congress on the hook for reauthorizing the nation’s transportation law this year – and with the Highway Trust Fund only months away from going broke – the latest evidence of continued stagnation in driving demands that our nation’s leaders plot a different course for our transportation future that recognizes changing trends in how Americans travel and focuses scarce resources on addressing America’s 21st century transportation priorities.

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Meet the New Yorkers Building the Biggest, Brightest Bike Counter Yet

Digital-display bicycle counters, sprouting up first in European cycling capitals like Copenhagen and spreading in recent years to Portland and San Francisco, give a real-time tally of how many cyclists use busy bike routes each day. This year, New York is set to get its own. The Big Apple’s version will — like most things in the big city — be bigger and brighter than what those other cities have. It’ll also have a community-based twist.

The Hi-Viz Public Bike Counter under development. Photo: Ted Ullrich

The Hi-Viz Public Bike Counter under development. Photo: Ted Ullrich

Bike counters in other cities have been installed by city governments and are permanently sited at a single location. In New York, a small team of planners and hardware designers are working together on a counter that will be portable and available to advocacy and community groups across the city interested in tallying bike riders in their neighborhoods.

Ted Ullrich, a product design engineer who founded hardware development firm Tomorrow Lab, got idea from trips to other cities. ”Why isn’t there one in New York?” he asked.

Ullrich connected with Planning Corps, a volunteer group of city planners who help non-profits, to sketch out what a New York City version would look like. They eventually settled on a two-foot by one-foot battery-powered box that can be mounted atop a tripod. Its bright red numerical display can be read from up to 100 feet away. It has a straightforward name: the Hi-Viz Public Bike Counter.

The project grew out of Waycount, a low-cost bike counter Ullrich developed with city planner Aurash Khawarzad. Unlike pricier counting products, which rely on wire loops installed in the pavement to distinguish bicycles from other types of traffic, Waycount uses rubber tubes that record whenever a wheel passes over them. To keep the system low-cost and easily mobile, the Hi-Viz Public Bike Counter will rely on the Waycount model, which includes software that allows users to download and store count records.

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