Transportation Agencies Will Finally Measure the Movement of People, Not Just Cars

A crowded 38 bus in San Francisco
New standards from U.S. DOT will ensure that 40 people in a bus count more than one person driving an SUV. Photo: SFMTA

“What you measure is what you get,” the saying goes, and for a long time, America’s transportation policy establishment was obsessed with measuring one thing: car congestion. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in the quest for free-flowing vehicular traffic. The result is wider highways, more sprawl, and more people stuck in congestion.

But this week U.S. DOT took an important step to change course, releasing new standards to guide how transportation agencies measure their performance. Advocates for transit and walkability say the policy is a significant improvement.

Advocates sent 5,000 letters to U.S. DOT urging them to consider a smarter and more modern approach to managing congestion. Photo: Transportation for America
U.S. DOT received 5,000 letters urging the agency to measure the movement of people, not just cars and trucks. Photo: Transportation for America

An earlier draft of these rules would have codified outdated highway-era dogma, emphasizing the movement of cars and trucks as a primary goal. Thousands of comments poured in demanding an approach that factors in the value of transit, biking, and walking — and the agency listened.

The revised U.S. DOT standards will lead agencies to assess their work in ways that support investments in transit and active transportation, according to Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America, which led the charge to reform the rule. Keep in mind that funding is not at stake here — U.S. DOT can’t reward or punish state DOTs based on how they perform. But state DOTs will now have to set new goals and report on their progress, and advocates will have new ways to hold transportation policy makers accountable.

Davis has identified four key wins in U.S. DOT’s new rule, which, it’s worth noting, can’t be struck down easily, because it’s the product of a lengthy regulatory process mandated by the 2012 federal transportation bill. Here’s our summary of the final regulation from U.S. DOT.

1. States will measure the movement of people, not just vehicles

U.S. DOT’s previous version of the rule measured roads that move the highest number of vehicles were the most successful. If some of those vehicles were buses holding 40 people, they would count the same as a single person driving an SUV.

The final rule incorporates a measure of “person-hours” of delay rather than just “vehicle hours.” That means spatially efficient solutions like exclusive transit lanes won’t be penalized for supposedly worsening the congestion problem.

2. State DOTs will have to track their impact on carbon emissions

For the first time, state transportation agencies will be required to monitor and forecast the impact of their projects on greenhouse gas emissions. The rule will apply to any alteration of roads in the National Highway System, which includes not just interstates but many state highways and major urban streets as well. Transportation emissions are the single biggest source of carbon emissions in the U.S., and this acknowledgment that DOTs should address the problem is long overdue.

3. People who walk, bike, or ride transit will be counted

The U.S. DOT rule creates a “multi-modal” performance measure that will track “non-single occupant vehicle travel.” States will have to establish targets to increase walking, biking, and transit use.

U.S. DOT is also leading a research project to help states and local agencies development better tools to measure how much people walk and bike — a big missing piece in transportation agencies’ toolkits.

4. Free-flowing rush hour car traffic isn’t the goal

Originally, U.S. DOT wanted to measure congestion by comparing rush-hour travel times to free-flowing traffic conditions. That framework rewards road expansion and sprawl, and it’s been the basis for a lot of wasteful highway spending.

In response to comments, U.S. DOT dropped this problematic measure altogether.

  • This is a great step forward, hopefully it survives under Trump.

  • Mike McCurdy

    Hopefully the human race survives under Trump.

  • Alexandra Oryniak

    Very important in NYC

  • localmile

    “The final rule incorporates a measure of “person-hours” of delay rather than just “vehicle hours.”

    This is all well and good and certainly an improvement but it is also contrary to safety for US traffic engineers. For them decreasing delay increases danger. At some point we need to de-emphasize delay and put our primary focus on fatalities and injuries. When we get these down very significantly, to the levels of Netherlands and Sweden then we can start thinking about delay.

  • localmile

    Perhaps we should assign delay factors to each fatality and injury. Each fatality adds 20 seconds of delay to the calculation of every road and junction within 40 miles of the fatality. Each disabling injury 15 seconds, each injury requiring a hospital visit 10 seconds, and each crash 5 seconds.

    Or better yet, for each fatality within their jurisdiction the traffic engineers, planners, and management all loose 1% of their pay that year (or 5% for that month). 0.8% for each disabling injury, 0.5% for each hospital injury, and 0.2% for each crash.

    Engineers in other fields put human safety first and foremost. Why do traffic engineers not do the same?

  • That’s a good point but this particular performance measure was for congestion and there was a separate one for safety, just FYI.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Perhaps this will reduce the whole descent of “environmentalism” into NIMBYism. Not just the rules, but the change in attitude it represents. And perhaps the suburbs, where most Americans live, will evolve into places where you don’t have to drive somewhere to go for a walk.

  • jonny bakho

    Safety can always be increased by reducing speeds.
    The goal of traffic engineers is often to send heavy vehicles as fast as possible through dense pedestrian areas. Widening lanes and increase lane #s to speed up traffic makes roads more dangerous for pedestrians to cross.
    The fastest way to get 40 people in vehicles through an intersection is still to put them all on a bus.
    Unfortunately, BigAuto denigrates riding buses to sell more cars.

  • GeorgeMokray

    My father worked on traffic engineering and signage for Parsons Brinckerhoff back in the day. He always said the rule of thumb in the business was that traffic expands to fill all available lanes.

  • Numbertwopencil

    That seems rather unlikely. I’d guess that we’ll be looking at wholesale privatization of DoT projects, including information gathering and what’s left of regulation. A casual Google search will turn up plenty of GOP plans to privatize the DoT top to bottom.

  • Touché.

  • Can you share with me where the concept you refer to is spelled out in rules ? I am interested in reading it as it is at the core of issues we have in protecting pedestrians from turning cars .. thank you in advance.

  • I kind of wish US DOT had done this 8 years ago under La Hood, but I guess better late than never.

  • This is huge.

  • Pedestrian bridge would fix that issue.
    0mph is the safest speed.
    Looking both ways ( in combination with right of way laws ) before crossing instead of blindly walking out in the road thinking the right of way law is going to save you is the best way to get across the road too.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

67 Congress Members Tell Feds: Measure the Movement of People, Not Cars

|
The federal government hands states about $40 billion a year for transportation, money they can basically spend however they want. The result in many places is a lot of expensive, traffic-inducing highways that get clogged with cars soon after they’re finished. Can measuring the effect of all this spending lead to better decisions? U.S. DOT is developing a metric to assess how […]

U.S. DOT Blows Chance to Reform the City-Killing, Planet-Broiling Status Quo

|
The Obama administration purportedly wants to use the lever of transportation policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently said he’d like to reverse the damage highways caused in urban neighborhoods, but you’d never know that by looking at U.S. DOT’s latest policy prescription. U.S. DOT has drafted new rules requiring state DOTs to track their […]

Fred Barnes: Americans Mainly Want to Stay in Their Cars

|
After yesterday’s electoral drubbing, the Obama administration will have to deal with a starkly different Congress when they make their expected push for a multi-year transportation bill early next year. We know that some influential House Republicans, like John Mica, don’t necessarily believe that bigger highways will solve America’s transportation problems. And we know that […]

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. 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 […]

Earth to U.S. DOT: Streets Succeed When They Do More Than Move Cars

|
What makes a street successful? Does a street succeed when it’s economically productive, when it helps reduce carbon emissions, and when people can conveniently and safely get around using a variety of transportation modes, regardless of age, ability, or social status? Or does success boil down to moving as many cars as fast as possible? The way public agencies answer these […]

A Big Opportunity to Reform the Vicious Cycle of Highway Expansion

|
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made headlines recently with a speech about how America needs to rethink its approach to urban highways. But U.S. DOT’s influence is limited. States have the real power when it comes spending federal transportation funds, however, and a lot of states are still stuck in the cycle of addressing traffic congestion by widening highways, […]