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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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Transpo Agencies Are Terrible at Predicting Traffic Levels

This chart contrasts state DOTs' projected traffic volumes with those actually recorded by the Federal Highway Administration. Image: ##http://www.ssti.us/2013/12/new-travel-demand-projections-are-due-from-u-s-dot-will-they-be-accurate-this-time/?utm_source=SSTI+Community+of+Practice+Master+List&utm_campaign=cbd2d0b53a-December_6_2013_newsletter12_16_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f54dd1d9a6-cbd2d0b53a-45447449## SSTI##

Combined traffic projections from state and regional transportation agencies (the colored lines) have been wildly off the mark (the black line shows real traffic levels) for more than a decade. Image: SSTI

Americans’ travel behavior is changing dramatically. It seems like not a week passes without a new report about the decline in driving. But are state and local transportation agencies — which are responsible for much of the nation’s highway and transportation planning — keeping up with the facts on the ground? A review of the evidence by the State Smart Transportation Initiative finds the answer is a definitive “No.”

Forecasts and assumptions about ever-increasing traffic are often used to justify agency decisions to expand roads. But these assumptions are increasingly divorced from reality. In fact, state and regional agencies aren’t just wrong some of the time. State DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations are getting it wrong every year, over and over again, by significant margins, according to SSTI’s analysis.

In their most recent reporting to the Federal Highway Administration, state and regional transportation agencies used data from 2008 to predict that traffic volumes would reach a combined 3.3 trillion miles nationally in 2012. Last year, a few months after that forecast was publicly released, real-world data already showed that the forecast wasn’t even close. Transportation agencies had collectively overestimated how many miles Americans would drive in 2012 by 11 percent. That is the equivalent of adding five “average-sized” states to the total, SSTI reports.

What’s worse, these wildly incorrect traffic assumptions are routinely used to justify costly road expansions.

SSTI reviewed every 20-year traffic forecast submitted by state and regional agencies to FHWA since 1999 (these predictions are in a document called the Conditions and Performance Report to Congress). It turns out that the 20-year projections overestimated future traffic volumes in every single year the reports could be compared against data on actual miles driven by Americans. The 1999 report, for example, overestimated actual driving in 2012 by a whopping 22 percent.

SSTI’s Eric Sundquist concluded that states and MPOs ”generally have not updated their models and assumptions to account for current conditions, as if they expect the year to be 1980 forever.”

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Study: All Across America, Car Commuting Is Dropping

Driving is declining and non-driving transportation is increasing in urbanized areas. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

Since 2000, car commuting has dropped across the board while other forms of travel have tended to increase in America’s 100 biggest urban areas. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group are on a mission to explore the downward trend in driving. In a series of reports, they point to evidence that it isn’t just a temporary blip, but a long-term shift in how Americans get around. Today, the two organizations released a new report, “Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities,” which shows that these changes are happening in regions all over the country.

In 99 of the nation’s 100 largest regions — the cities and suburbs that are home to more than half the U.S. population — fewer people got to work in a private vehicle in 2010 than in 2000. In the vast majority of those areas, households are shedding cars while more people are getting on the bus and taking up biking. These 100 regions are the engines of the U.S. economy and where most of the nation’s population growth is happening.

Since state DOT data collection leaves much to be desired, PIRG and Frontier Group encountered some situations where they couldn’t do an apples-to-apples comparison. As a result, they examined vehicle miles traveled trends in only 74 of the 100 largest urbanized areas. In 54 of those, VMT had dropped. Across the country, mileage is down 7.6 percent per capita since 2004.

“Each city has a different story,” U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall said in an email. “Sometimes the stories are hard to see because the data is messy, but the overall picture suggests real changes in how people get around.”

The report kicks off with a lovely tale about one city’s fight to keep a highway from destroying downtown:

When Madison, Wisconsin, was given the opportunity to bring the interstate into the city in the 1960s, local officials decided to keep its downtown highway-free — they believed that a highway running through Madison’s narrow downtown isthmus would make the city less attractive. But without the Interstate, city officials needed to make sure that residents had access to other modes of transportation to travel down-town. So city planners sought to build a multimodal transportation network that promoted bicycling, public transit and walking.

And guess what? Those investments are still paying off. As attitudes about transportation and urban living shifted over the past decade and more people decided to explore life outside the automobile, Madisonians had lots of good options to choose from. On average, each city resident drove 18 percent fewer miles in 2011 than in 2006 — from 8,900 miles down to 7,300. Meanwhile, biking to work soared 88 percent in the last 11 years, and bus ridership is way up.

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group encourage other places to follow Madison’s lead. Madison started investing in multi-modalism in the 1960s and 70s, when driving was still ascendant. Today, as Americans embrace transit and active transportation in greater numbers, driving declines, and new roads become increasingly poor investments, those same strategies should seem like ordinary common sense.

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Georgia Removes Tolls, Invites 11,000 More Drivers to Clog GA 400 Each Day

Why raise desperately needed transportation funds for a broke region when you could let people drive for free? In Georgia, the state has made up its mind: The DOT will pay $4.5 million to tear down tolls on GA 400 — and forfeit the $21 million a year the tolls brought in.

It's going to cost $4.5 million to tear down these toll booths, not to mention another $21 million a year in forfeited toll revenue. Photo: Creative Loafing

It cost drivers just 50 cents each to drive 54 miles north and east from the city of Atlanta on GA 400. But last July — just before voters in the region rejected an effort to fund a multi-modal transportation package — Gov. Nathan Deal announced that the bond debt was paid off and tolls would be removed this fall.

According to David Emory, president of Atlanta’s Citizens for Progressive Transit, the state decided to announce the toll repeal in the run-up to the T-SPLOST ballot initiative in hopes that it would appeal to voters and encourage them to vote for the transportation tax. “It ended up being a losing strategy,” Emory said, “because we’re losing the toll and the tax didn’t pass.”

It’s extraordinarily difficult to implement tolling on a road that had been free. On roads that receive federal funds, federal law prohibits tolling except for new construction. And politicians never want to ask drivers to pay for what they’re used to getting for free. So Georgia is for all intents and purposes foreclosing the possibility of having GA 400 users pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the road they drive on.

The state could also use those toll revenues for other projects that could take traffic off GA 400 and other roads, and reduce the pressure to build new highways in the future. The tolls have paid for express bus service along GA 400 and for a pedestrian bridge, among other projects, but there’s so much more that money could do.

MARTA’s red line runs right down the middle of GA 400 in places — and although the charge to drive on GA 400 is disappearing, “the fare on the MARTA line is definitely not going away,” Emory said.

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Heart Disease, Traffic Jams and ADHD Share One Simple Solution: Drive Less

This is an excerpt from “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy,” by Elly Blue (Microcosm Publishing, December 1, 2013, bikenomics.com). See our interview with Elly from spring 2013. 

Car exhaust is no laughing matter. Nearly half of residents in major urban areas in North America live close enough to highways and other large roads to experience serious problems as a result. Exposure to car emissions worsens and may cause asthma and other lung conditions, including lung cancer. There is evidence to suggest that it leads to hardening of the arteries and thence to heart disease. One study has found an increased risk of heart attacks while in traffic, either while driving or using public transportation. Breathing car exhaust may increase the risk of developing diabetes; it is certain, however, that people who have diabetes suffer disproportionately from the effects of air pollution.

Traffic flows and air quality improved with the odd-even license plate restriction in Beijing during the Olympics. Photo: Traffic Technology Today

The worst effects of breathing polluted air are experienced where it is densest: in traffic. Spending time on and near highways, freeways, and other busy roads is terrible for your health. How near is a question that is still being studied, but researchers believe that the effects are worst within either a fifth or a third of a mile. People in cars or buses are exposed to considerably more air pollution, perhaps because of, rather than despite, being in a closed space. People walking and bicycling on or next to roads breathe more air, but inhale somewhat less pollution; and cyclists have been found to have even less risk if they are on paths that are separated from the road.

The burdens that come with air pollution are, as with so much else, not evenly distributed. Poverty and ethnicity are both major factors that determine the amount of car exhaust we breathe. Housing near a source of pollution, such as a freeway, busy road, or industrial site is generally where people with low incomes are able to live.

Children are particularly at risk, beginning before birth. Air pollution affects prenatal development, and a recent study suggests that exposure to air pollution such as diesel particulates, mercury, and lead may put a child at risk for autism. A separate study found double the rate of autism among children who live within 1,000 feet of a freeway in several major cities. Air pollution has also been linked, tentatively, to hyperactivity in kids and childhood cancers. And kids who have high daily exposure to car exhaust score lower on intelligence tests and have more depression, anxiety, and attention problems. This isn’t just a matter of where children live – one in three public schools in the U.S. are within a quarter mile of a highway, well within the danger zone.

Traffic jams and air pollution are often talked about at once, as though one inevitably causes the other, and that by fixing one you can also solve the other.

It doesn’t quite work that way.

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SSTI to Transport Officials: Start Planning for a Future With Less Driving

For a long time in the United States, driving activity moved in step with the economy. Since economic growth was fairly steady, consistent growth in driving was built into all the traffic modeling the engineers used to plan and build streets and transportation infrastructure.

Annual, per-capita vehicle miles traveled by Americans have been declining for eight years. Image: State Smart Transportation Campaign

But now per capita driving has declined eight straight years in America. Total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) hasn’t really budged in five years, and remains below its peak. A number of things have fundamentally changed since the time when you could chart driving behavior into the future using an upward line, according to a new paper by the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a think-tank based out of the University of Wisconsin which counts 19 state DOTs among its partners.

SSTI rejects the idea that driving declines reflect the recent recession, noting that the current slump began in 2004, well before the recession started. Driving activity actually began to decouple from economic growth in 2000, SSTI says, and today they do not appear to be strongly related.

The reasons for the current decline, SSTI reports, are broad cultural and economic trends that are likely to be “permanent,” or “remain in effect for a generation or more.”

In the decades prior, driving increases were triggered by factors like rising household income and auto ownership rates, increasing participation in the workforce by women, and the swelling ranks of Baby Boomers in their most active driving years. Today, however, those trends have abated or are moving in the opposite direction.

Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, and entering a stage in their lives when they will drive less and less. The American market for car owners is mostly saturated. Meanwhile, the growth in women’s workforce participation leveled off more than 10 years ago.

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