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Posts from the "Transportation Policy" Category

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DOTs Now Have No Excuse for Ignoring Changing Transportation Trends

As report titles go, you could hardly get less sexy than “NHCRP Report 750: Strategic Issues Facing Transportation, Volume 6: The Effects of Socio-Demographics on Future Travel Demand.” But buried within this wonky new document from the Transportation Research Board are ideas that can — and should — upend the way local, state, and federal officials plan for future transportation needs.

Two different scenarios foretell two very different futures for the Atlanta region. Image: NCHRP

Two different scenarios foretell two very different futures for the Atlanta region. Image: NCHRP

It’s no secret that our current transportation models have done a lousy job of accounting for the recent decline in driving in the United States. The most glaring example is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s biennial “Conditions and Performance“ report to Congress, which has repeatedly forecast a return to rapid growth in driving that has repeatedly failed to materialize.

Bad forecasts lead to bad decisions – specifically, the investment of vast amounts of public resources in new and expanded highways that we probably don’t need (e.g. in Wisconsin).

At first, the transportation policy establishment chalked up the decline in driving to the economic recession and assumed it was only temporary. That is despite the fact that, as Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer from the Brookings Institution pointed out as early as 2008, the drop in per-capita driving began well before the recession. And it’s continued during the recovery.

Over time, however, experts have come to recognize the multiple factors – including changes in the composition of the workforce, an aging population, technological changes, and shifts in housing and travel preferences among Millennials – that have contributed to the recent fall in driving and that make further stagnation in vehicle travel likely.

The new TRB report (which we could refer to by the catchy acronym SIFTV6:TESDFTD, but won’t) explicitly acknowledges these fundamental changes, identifying eight socio-demographic trends that will influence demand for vehicle travel through 2050. Of those eight trends, only one (changes in the nation’s racial and ethnic mix) is expected to contribute to an increase in per-capita driving, while at least five (the “graying” of America, technological change, workforce change, the “blurring of city and suburb,” and slow growth in households) will tend to reduce per-capita driving. (The impacts of the other two trends are ambiguous or unspecified.)

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Beyond “Level of Service” — New Methods for Evaluating Streets

Streetsblog reported earlier this month that transportation agencies are increasingly aware of the insidious consequences of using “Level of Service” as the primary metric for their projects. Because Level of Service only rewards the movement of motor vehicles, it promotes dangerous, high-speed streets and sprawling land use.

The question remains: How should streets and development projects be measured?

If this is what you want for your street, Level of Service won't get you there. You need a different performance measure. Photo: Lancaster Online

We mentioned that some places are switching to an analysis called multi-modal Level of Service. But Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard, says there are problems with that approach as well.

Multi-modal Level of Service, he says, takes “all of the narrow thinking around delay for cars and applies that same thinking to all the other modes.” For example, MM-LOS assumes pedestrians and transit riders have the same need as vehicles: “lack of congestion,” or space between others who travel the same way.

But what works for cars isn’t necessarily what works for other modes. For example, MM-LOS views “transit crowding” as a wholly negative thing. On this measure, an infill development might be penalized for leading to “crowding,” but a sprawling greenfield development would face no penalty, since it would produce fewer transit riders.

According to Tumlin, searching for a direct replacement for Level of Service is the wrong way to go, because part of the problem with Level of Service is the narrowness of its scope.

“LOS tells us about one thing [vehicle delay at intersections], but it doesn’t tell us about anything else,” says Tumlin. “What are all of the things we want our transportation system to do, and how do we measure whether it’s doing that or not?”

Tumlin’s advice to transportation professionals and public officials is to adopt performance measures based on expressed community values as well as the specifics of the project at hand.

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The Beginning of the End for Level of Service?

There are three little words that will make any livable streets advocate groan: Level of Service.

"Level of Service" is the metric that, perhaps more than any other, fuels the decimation of walkable streets. Image: Andy Singer

Level of Service, simply put, is a measure of vehicle congestion at intersections. Projects are graded from “A” to “F” based on how much delay drivers experience.

That’s all it measures: the free motion of motor vehicles. And that’s the problem. The safety of people on foot and on bikes doesn’t enter into the equation at all, and transit vehicles carrying dozens of people are subjugated to the movement of private cars. In fact, a high “level of service” generally makes for a much more stressful and dangerous street, since speeding traffic, and the wide lanes that facilitate it, is a leading cause of traffic injuries and deaths.

Last month, livable streets advocates in California finally made progress in a long battle to reform the state’s environmental laws, which perversely rewarded projects that cater to cars and maintain a certain Level of Service. When, for instance, San Francisco went to add a bike lane or a bus lane, the city first had to show — as part of environmental law — that drivers would not be inconvenienced. Then on September 27, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law saying that Level of Service requirements would no longer factor into the state’s environmental review process — at least in “transit priority areas,” which will incorporate sections of all the state’s urbanized areas.

The Natural Resources Defense Council celebrated the bill’s passage, writing that it will “have the potential to shape California’s future in a big way.”

California isn’t the only place rethinking its reliance on Level of Service to grade transportation and development projects. Portland, Oregon, issued an RFP last summer asking for help developing new performance measures to replace Level of Service. The RFP read: “The existing LOS standards and measures, which focus only on motor vehicle levels of service, do not reflect the City of Portland’s current practice which emphasizes and promotes a multi-modal approach to transportation planning and providing transportation services.”

Meanwhile, other cities that want to build better streets for walking, biking, and transit are finding ways around Level of Service without changing laws.

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Motor Mouths: Send Us Clueless Transportation Quotes From Public Officials

Before he gained worldwide notoriety as the mayor allegedly caught on tape smoking crack, Toronto’s Rob Ford was perhaps best known as the mayor who said, “Bicyclists are a pain in the ass!

Perhaps no public official will ever top that combination of brevity and mindless hostility toward non-automotive transportation. But there’s a lot of competition out there.

Recently, we asked our Twitter followers to share quotes from state and local transportation officials that reveal an underlying contempt for walking, biking, and transit. Below are three examples that readers sent to us. Each comes from an official agency spokesperson, so you can only imagine what gets said behind closed doors. If you’d like to add to this initial collection of Motor Mouths — and we hope you do — send your example of car-centricity to angie@streetsblog.org or tell us about it in the comments.

Without further ado, our first round of Motor Mouths.

St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic

The Offender: David Wrone, spokesman for the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic, as quoted by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and a local CBS affiliate.

The Evidence:

Exhibit A: “As a matter of policy, we don’t build dedicated bike lanes. St. Louis County salutes the bike-riding community, but we manage our system in the knowledge that motor vehicles comprise the vast majority of our customer base.”

Exhibit B: “We’re a highway department, not a bicycle department.”

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A Golden Opportunity for Congress to Avoid the Transportation “Fiscal Cliff”

The Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund is expected to slip into negative territory in 2015. Estimates are based on CBO's February 2013 baseline projections. Image: CBO

MAP-21 expires in a year and five months. When it does, if lawmakers haven’t already found a solution to the “transportation fiscal cliff,” they’ll have to do one of three things, according to a report issued last week by the Congressional Budget Office [PDF]:

  • Transfer $14 billion more in general funds
  • Raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon
  • Cut the authority to obligate funds in 2015 from about $51 billion projected under current law to about $4 billion

“If lawmakers chose to wait until fiscal year 2015,” wrote CBO analyst Sarah Puro, “at the expiration of MAP-21, to reduce spending, those cuts in 2015 would need to total about 92 percent for the highway account and 100 percent for the transit account.”

It couldn’t be clearer. Congress has to stop dithering and start working on a revenue solution, stat. Oh, and the president and his new secretary of transportation have to get behind it, guns blazing.

Congress has three potential vehicles for a revenue solution: 1) a “grand bargain” on the deficit, the sequester and the fiscal cliff, 2) tax reform, and 3) the next surface transportation bill.

And what will that “revenue solution” be? The simplest, most easily implemented fix is a gas tax hike, but over the long term, taxing fossil fuels as a way to pay for transportation infrastructure just won’t cut it.

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A Better Way to Grade City Transportation Systems

How should we grade America’s transportation systems?

Measures of accessibility -- like the number of jobs in metro Minneapolis within a 20-minute morning drive -- can assess transportation systems without leading to the conclusion that highways and sprawl are the answer. Image: University of Minnesota

The big, headline-grabbing transportation metric right now is the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report, which holds up the lack of congestion as the ultimate sign of a well-functioning transportation system. By that measure, cities like Kansas City, Phoenix, and Detroit — where car commutes can be free-flowing but tend to cover long distances — come out looking great, while large metros that do a better job of providing non-automotive transportation options — like Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York — look like failures.

But TTI’s narrow focus on congestion has come under increasingly intense scrutiny in recent years, with critics pointing out that it is used to justify road-widening projects that purport to reduce congestion but mainly serve to encourage sprawl and lengthen commutes.

A study recently released by the University of Minnesota presents an interesting alternative to the TTI’s metrics. UMN Transportation Engineering Professor David Levinson recently analyzed metropolitan commuting according to a very different criterion: accessibility, or “the ease of reaching desired destinations.”

Levinson attempted to improve on the TTI report by tracking the time it takes for people in the 51 largest U.S. metro areas to reach jobs. His findings stand in stark contrast to the TTI’s report. Large metros like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago offered the greatest number of jobs within a 10-minute car commute, Levinson found.

While TTI’s methodology penalizes cities for locating homes and businesses close together, because that increases congestion, in Levinson’s analysis, higher concentrations of destinations are rewarded for helping to reduce travel times.

“There are two ways for cities to improve accessibility—by making transportation faster and more direct or increasing the density of activities, such as locating jobs closer together and closer to workers,” Levinson writes.

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Streetfacts: Americans Are Driving Less

We continue our Streetfacts series by looking at the data on driving in the U.S. Per-capita driving has declined every year since 2005. That’s not a blip, it’s now an 8-year trend.

The reason? Neither the state of the economy nor changes in gas prices offer a satisfactory explanation. Social preferences and demographic shifts seem to be playing a role. Young people today are less likely to own a car or have a driver’s license than young people several years ago. At the same time, America’s growing population of seniors are no longer in their peak driving years.

Whatever the combination of factors, people are riding transit, walking, and bicycling more. Even Motor Trend is examining the shift away from cars.

The upshot is that we need to start making smart transportation investments that align with the new reality: Americans are driving less.

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For Eighth Year in a Row, the Average American Drove Fewer Miles in 2012

Per-capita VMT in the U.S. Image: State Smart Transportation Initiative

For decades — through the rise of the two-car household, women entering the workforce, the growth of the exurbs — Americans reliably put more miles on their cars every year.

But no longer. Last year, for the eighth year in a row, vehicle miles traveled ticked down on a per-capita basis. The average American drove 37 fewer miles in 2012 than in 2011 — a 0.4 percent drop, according to new data from FHWA. It’s a small but significant decrease, continuing the downward slide of per-capita VMT that began in 2004, well before the economy faltered.

Total vehicle miles traveled by Americans. Image: SSTI

Experts attribute the reversal to a variety of factors including the gradual retirement of the baby boomer generation, volatile gas prices, decreased interest in driving by millennials, and the increasing popularity of walkable neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, population growth caused total mileage to tick up 0.3 percent in 2012. Total VMT, which has also seen a reversal of historical patterns, has declined three of the last eight years, for a net decrease of 0.9 percent over that time, reports the State Smart Transportation Initiative. Noting that total mileage has leveled off, SSTI advises state DOTs to rethink projects that add highway lanes — projects that are often justified based on faulty models assuming growth in VMT.

Deliberate policy can have also a powerful impact on VMT patterns. In Portland, for example — a city that has recently done as much as any other to promote modes other than driving — vehicle miles traveled began decreasing in 1996 [PDF].

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The Next Generation DOT

Cross-posted from the Strong Towns blog

Charles Marohn is a planner and engineer in Minnesota and the executive director of Strong Towns. 

We’ve been looking at the instincts of today’s transportation agencies. While on an individual level it is clear that these organizations are filled with people who are professional, competent and want to do the right thing, the institutional inertia is carrying them in wayward directions.

Lesson for state DOTs: Don't build anything new until you're sure you can maintain what you already have. Image: Public Domain Photos

When confronted with a persistently dangerous intersection, there is no push or conversation to close it. That is not in the play book because the policies of transportation agencies are deeply rooted in misunderstandings about economic growth and development. What is in the play book is the will to make large expenditures on modest improvements in the hopes that the problem will be alleviated. This from agencies that are fatally short of funding. At least we tried.

Unfortunately, those misunderstandings we have about growth and development correlate highway spending with increased prosperity. In reality, this is an illusion brought about by quick and easy development leveraged off these massive investments. The lack of productivity in this approach means that, over the long term, the costs far outweigh the gains. It is the Ponzi scheme of the Suburban Experiment. We’re in the unwinding phase.

Nobody should understand that more clearly than our nation’s DOTs. They are simultaneously over committed and under funded. While they obsess about the latter, it is the former that they will ultimately be forced to reconcile. Many in these agencies — especially the second tier of leaders that are a little more removed from our highway building heydays and a little further from retirement than the first tier – understand this clearly, but they lack an acceptable alternative approach. They are trapped by the inertia of their organization.

It is to those people that I offer my thoughts on the principles and understandings that a Next Generation DOT should embody when making that inevitable course correction.

1. Transportation spending is not economic development.

Speaking of transportation in terms of economic development has been a convenient way to secure additional funding streams. Unfortunately, the meme has become part of the wider culture, even though we know that good transportation systems serve productive growth, not create it. Transportation systems move goods and people. They are not catalysts for productive growth. We know how much that interchange costs so we need to stop pretending that the quiki mart, pet stop and strip mall somehow justify the investment just because it makes the locals happy.

2. Transportation spending is not job creation.
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It’s Not the Economy, Stupid: Americans Really Are Driving Less

Economist Joe Cortright compared growth in miles driven per capita before and after five recessions. He found that, unlike in the past, drivers are logging fewer miles, not more, during this economic recovery. Image: Joe Cortright/CEOs for Cities

Since 2005, Americans have been driving fewer miles each year. While the shift predated the onset of the Great Recession, the question of whether the decline in driving marked a sea change in the way we get around or simply reflected a drop in economic activity has been a matter of considerable debate.

Enter economist Joe Cortright, who took a closer look at American driving patterns following the last five recessions. The results, which Cortright discussed during a panel at last month’s National Association of City Transportation Officials conference, point to the emergence of fundamentally different American travel behavior.

Looking at the periods before and after the last five recessions, Cortright charted vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita in the United States on a monthly basis, indexing the last month of each recession to zero. In four of the five recessions, driving was either increasing or stagnant in the two years before the economic slowdown, and it quickly picked up steam during the recovery.

The only exception was the most recent recession, which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. Before the recession, driving per person was dropping. After the recession, driving continued to fall. In other words, Cortright says, the recession has little to do with what is actually a long-term trend.

“As the recession ended, driving continued to decline,” Cortright said. “And the reason is the increase in gas prices.” In the past decade, he noted, the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline has tripled.

But pocketbook concerns aren’t the only factors at work. There is a generational shift, as well. Cortright pointed out that the drop in driving is particularly pronounced for people in their teens and twenties. Today’s teenagers are getting their licenses later than previous generations, and young people are increasingly opting to live in cities.

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