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Posts from the "Traffic" Category

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It’s Happening: Washington State Revises Traffic Forecasts to Reflect Reality

Washington State has revised traffic projections downward, to reflect changing patterns. Image: Washington State via Sightline

The Washington State Office of Fiscal Management has revised its traffic projections downward to reflect changing patterns. Graph Washington OFM via Sightline

The amount that the average American drives each year has been declining for nearly a decade, yet most transportation agencies are still making decisions based on the notion that a new era of ceaseless traffic growth is right around the corner.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, for example, has overestimated traffic on its roads by an average of 73 percent, according to a recent study. And Dallas-area planners recently produced traffic projections that predicted a much larger increase in driving than the state DOT was even predicting.

That’s why a new traffic forecast from the Washington State Office of Fiscal Management is so interesting: It actually acknowledges how travel habits are changing. Seattle-based environmental think tank Sightline spotted the above traffic projection in a new government report. In its most recent financial forecast, the agency has abandoned the assumption of never-ending traffic growth that it employed as recently as last year. Instead, the agency has responded to recent trends, even projecting that total traffic will start to decline within the next ten years.

Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry says that’s huge:

By undermining both the rationale for new roads and the belief that we’ll be able to pay for them, a forecast of flat traffic should help inject a needed dose of reality into the state’s transportation debates.

Of course, there’s no telling whether this forecast will be right. As Yogi Berra allegedly said, predictions are hard, especially about the future. But if it turns out that this forecast underestimates traffic growth, budgeters won’t find it such an unpleasant surprise, since more traffic will bring more revenue from drivers.

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Not Just a Phase: Young Americans Won’t Start Motoring Like Their Parents

Image: U.S. Public Interest Research Group

Young adults in 2009 were driving less and walking, biking, and riding transit more than young adults in 2001, according to the National Household Travel Survey. Chart: U.S. Public Interest Research Group

A raft of recent research indicates that young adults just aren’t as into driving as their parents were. Young people today are walking, biking, and riding transit more while driving less than previous generations did at the same age. But the vast majority of state DOTs have been loathe to respond by changing their highway-centric ways. 

A new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group points out the folly of their inaction: If transportation officials are waiting for Americans born after 1983 to start motoring like their parents did, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Though some factors underlying the shift in driving habits are likely temporary — caused by the recession, for instance — just as many appear to be permanent, the authors found. That means American transportation agencies should get busy preparing for a far different future than their traffic models predict.

“The Millennial generation is not only less car-focused than older Americans by virtue of being young, but they also drive less than previous generations of young people,” write authors Tony Dutzik, Jeff Inglis, and Phineas Baxandall.

There’s a good deal of evidence that the recession cannot fully explain the trend away from driving among young people. Notably, driving declined even among millennials who stayed employed, and “between the recession years of 2001 and 2009, per-capita driving declined by 16 percent among 16 to 34 year-olds with jobs,” the authors write.

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Fair Tolls: Fixing NYC’s Gridlock and Transit Shortfall in One Fell Swoop

moveny_graphic

The Move NY Fair Plan sets tolls at all East River crossings and 60th Street at the same amount, while lowering tolls on four outlying MTA bridges. Graphic: Christina Roman, Sam Schwartz Engineering

When Governor Nelson Rockefeller merged New York’s commuter rail lines, the NYC Transit Authority, and Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to form the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968, he had several motives. The new agency consolidated political power, made more efficient use of regional infrastructure, and devoted surplus bridge and tunnel toll revenues to rescue a faltering transit system.

That last idea, making drivers pay for transit, had a powerful logic, since drivers themselves benefit from viable transit that prevents stifling traffic jams. But the original set-up had a built-in flaw: New York’s tolled crossings compete with free bridges.

Today, almost half a century later, this formula is broken. “Toll shopping” is exacerbating gridlock in communities on both sides of the free East River bridges and throughout the Manhattan central business district while eroding MTA revenues. Meanwhile, the MTA needs a new revenue stream to fund its next capital plan, but current users of its crossings are balking at soaring tolls while adjacent bridges remain free.

Excluding the Port Authority-controlled Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, an estimated 1,733,000 car and truck trips are made into or out of the CBD or on a major MTA bridge each weekday. Each trip that crosses the CBD boundary imposes, on average, two hours of aggregate delay on all other drivers (more during rush hours, less during off-peak hours). Yet only 604,000 — 35 percent — of those 1.7 million-plus trips are tolled: 458,000 on the MTA bridges plus 146,000 through the MTA’s Queens Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (see graphic).

The remaining 1,129,000 trips — of which 445,000 enter or exit the CBD via an East River bridge while 684,000 cross 60th Street — pay nothing. (These and other figures in this post are derived in my Balanced Transportation Analyzer Spreadsheet [PDF].)

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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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