Engineers to U.S. DOT: Transportation Is About More Than Moving Cars

A trade group representing the transportation engineering profession thinks it’s high time for American policy makers to stop focusing so much on moving single-occupancy vehicles.

Should roads like this be considered a "success?" ITE doesn't think so. Photo: Smart Growth America
Should roads like this be considered a success? ITE doesn’t think so. Photo: Smart Growth America

U.S. DOT is currently deciding how it will assess the performance of state DOTs. Will it continue business as usual and equate success with moving huge numbers of cars? That’s what state transportation officials want, but just about everyone else disagrees — including professional transportation engineers.

In its comments to the Federal Highway Administration about how to measure performance, the Institute of Transportation Engineers — a trade group representing 13,000 professionals — said that, in short, the system should not focus so heavily on cars [PDF].

Here’s a key excerpt:

Throughout the current proposed rulemaking on NHS performance, traffic congestion, freight mobility, and air quality, an underlying theme is apparent: these measures speak largely to the experience of those in single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). While such a focus is understandable in the short-term, owing largely to the current availability of data from the NPMRDS and other national sources, ITE and its membership feel that FHWA should move quickly within the framework of the existing performance management legislation to begin developing performance measures that cater to multimodal transportation systems.

The first step in this process is instituting a program to develop standards and procedures for data collection within this alternative modes of travel, an effort which ITE feels should be undertaken by FHWA and its USDOT partner agencies concurrent to the final performance management rulemaking under consideration. Once this multimodal framework is established, FHWA can work to develop a more comprehensive and holistic set of performance measures that accommodate multiple modes of transportation, while achieving secondary effects of improved public health, community livability, and economic development.

While ITE is supportive in moving forward with the majority of the proposed measures as the first step in this evolutionary process, we do believe FHWA should postpone the adoption of an urban congestion measure until such time as this measure can represent all users of the system. The singular focus of the current proposed measure on vehicle-based travel may have the unintended consequences of focusing investment on the movement of SOVs at a time when the transportation industry has begun to aggressively support shared services and transportation choices. Rather than expending limited FHWA, State and local resources on implementing a measure of questionable value, we respectfully request that FHWA direct those resources toward the collection of multi-modal data and the establishment of multi-modal and person-based measures.

This is very much in line with what advocates for reform like Transportation for America have been saying.

The way FHWA’s draft rule is currently written emphasizes vehicle delay. In other words, it prioritizes the movement of cars over broader social, environmental, and public health concerns — exactly the kind of old-fashioned thinking that has led states on an endless cycle of expensive highway widenings and continued gridlock. State officials may not have figured out that something needs to change, but it looks like the engineering profession has.

Editor’s note: Streetsblog USA and the Streetsblog Network will be on a brief hiatus next week as Angie takes some well-earned time off. We’ll see you back here after Labor Day, Streetsblog readers.

  • I just spent two weeks in the bowels of PennDOT for a bridge inspection course. Even the innocent (i.e. practically and scientifically governed) bridge engineers hardly see anything except cars and trucks. Its a culture and a bureaucracy that will be difficult, but not impossible, to change. (My SEPTA colleague and I actually rode our folding bikes uphill from downtown Harrisburg everyday to the PennDOT facility in the middle of a beautiful cornfield. Getting lunch was a challenge.)

  • Larry Littlefield

    Always remember that motor vehicles get limited access highways. The highways (if not the land they sit on) were and are paid for with gas taxes and tolls.

    Everyone else also pays for the rest of the roads, and it’s all they have.

  • Angie deserves a lot more than a hiatus…. Thank you Angie

  • Do we know if motorbikes count as motor vehicles ? So what happen with electric motors? Are now ALL electric bikes counted as vehicles? This could be game changer for roadway performance !

  • How do you fund highways when vehicles are electric?

  • Cody Davis

    Why are all of our tech companies like Google and Apple partnering with auto companies to develop self-driving cars, and why is the US DOT supporting them wholeheartedly? It’s no good if you ask me.

  • CeeTee55

    Mileage tax?

  • CeeTee55

    Path dependency? We already have a massive road system designed and optimized for motorized SOVs. Changing from the human-driven cars to self-driving cars is actually logistically simpler and cheaper than something like complete streets, pedestrianization, adding public transport, or making suburbs more walkable/bikeable.

  • war_on_hugs

    Many roads that are technically part of the “National Highway System” are not limited access. Also, buses and other multiple-occupancy vehicles use interstate highways, which is not always accounted for.

  • good idea, maybe combined with a hefty congestion tax – a mile in manhattan is more harmful than a mile in westchester…

  • calwatch

    ITE are the folks that bring you the Trip Generation Manual, which has been overparking development for decades. I’m glad to see they are steering in the direction of more multimodalism, but not holding my breath until they address those concerns. http://www.accessmagazine.org/articles/fall-2014/phantom-trips/

  • I think gas taxes pay for a bit less than half of roadways. The majority is paid for by local, county, and state property taxes and general funds.

  • Alicia

    Or, alternatively a sales tax on cars and parts (tires, et cetera).

  • neroden

    This is huge. I’m really glad that ITE is coming in on the right side of the issue. This is a *massive* move. FHWA may not listen to most advocates, but if ITE is on the side of the advocates, they’re going to have to listen.

  • neroden

    We already fund most of our roads through property tax.

    The expressways should be tolled, of course.

  • Haggie

    A car is a car regardless of who or what is driving it.

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