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Affordability as a Transportation Planning Objective

– This article originally appeared on Todd Litman’s blog at Planetizen, and was reprinted with permission of the author.

What do transportation system users consider to be the most important problem? Here’s a hint: it’s not traffic congestion.

The 2009 National Household Travel Survey asked respondents to rate the importance of six transport problems: traffic safety, congestion, price of travel, availability of public transit, and lack of walkways or sidewalks. Virtually every demographic group rated affordability (“price of travel”) most important, as indicated in the graphs below.

2009 National Household Travel Survey

According to a major national survey, virtually every demographic group rates affordability (“price of travel”) the most important transport planning issue.

Affordable transport is important, particularly for lower-income people. Increased affordability is equivalent to an increase in income.

Yet, conventional planning ignores this concern. Affordability is seldom recognizes as a transportation planning objective, and if it is, it is usually evaluated based simply on fuel costs. Conventional planning ignores vehicle ownership and parking facility costs, which are much larger than fuel costs, and so ignores the inaffordability caused by automobile dependency and the user savings that can result from increased transport system diversity and land use accessibility.

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High Anxiety: Good Parents and Bad Parents on the Road

America’s roads have suddenly become dangerous places for America’s children. At least, that’s what’s suggested by a flurry of viral stories involving kids and cars.

We can all agree this is a bad idea, right? A Colorado police officer snapped this picture. Photo: Jalopnik

In May, an inebriated Florida couple made news when they took their granddaughter for a joy ride, pulling her behind their SUV in a toy car. Then came the story of an Indiana dad, arrested after strapping his four children to the car hood to get them home from a quick liquor store stop. Next, it was the stoned Arizona mother who secured her weeks-old baby in its car seat, popped the seat on top of her vehicle, and drove off. The latest item grew out of a snapshot, taken by a Colorado police officer, of a diapered toddler restrained only by a seat belt while his child safety seat, buckled in next to him, cradled a can of gas.

While the nation may be experiencing a statistical rise in stupidity, substance abuse, or child neglect, more likely we’re just enjoying better access, through cable news and social media, to tales of bad parenting, tales we can take perverse pleasure in consuming and sharing. It’s simple and satisfying to stand in judgment of these “horrible parents” whose choices were so obviously wrong. Here are selfish people who put loved ones into terrible danger, something we would never do. Their evil, then, becomes our good.

Why, though, would we need these object lessons to highlight our own good parenting?  Perhaps such high-contrast, black and white stories help quell the anxiety of transporting our children through the problematic gray area that is modern American car culture.

Cars — equipped with safety seats or not, piloted by sober drivers or not — present real danger to kids. Despite improved auto and traffic safety, they remain the number one killer of young people aged 5-34. Yet many new parents relocate to car-dependent suburbs, and many towns resist expanded transit lines or walking and biking paths, theoretically to protect their families from crime. Feeling children are safer in remote communities, these parents end up driving them everywhere, often to school, despite the fact that they would be about 20 times safer taking the bus. Seeking to protect them from the horrors of climate (but not climate change), moms and dads drive their young ones to school in inclement weather or idle at bus stops to shuttle them, warm and dry, a short block home.

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U.S. PIRG Report: Young Americans Dump Cars for Bikes, Buses

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group has been crunching the numbers on travel preferences among young Americans — and the news is not good for auto makers.

Public transit use increased 100 percent among 16-34-year-olds with household incomes above $70,000, according to a new report from PIRG. Photo: U.S. PIRG

The report — Transportation and the New Generation — is chock-full of nuggets like this:

Driving is down: “From 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent.”

Biking is up: “In 2009, 16- to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.”

Young people even reported consciously driving less to save the environment. “Sixteen percent of 18- to 34-year-olds polled said they strongly agreed with the statement, ‘I want to protect the environment, so I drive less.’ This is compared to approximately nine percent of older generations.”

The trend toward non-automobile transportation options was even more pronounced among higher-income Americans, notable because this group is less likely to be motivated by economic concerns. “From 2001 to 2009, young people (16- to 34-year-olds) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.”

A number of factors are thought to be contributing to the trend. Some states now require “graduated” driver’s licensing, making young people pass multiple driving tests and hold learner’s permits longer before they earn full privileges. Higher gas prices, obviously, help put owning a car out of reach for many younger Americans, especially as the age group struggles in a less-favorable job market. Finally, technology, specifically smartphones, and their incompatibility with (safe) driving, help make alternatives that much more inviting.

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Bad Transit Condemns Much of Ohio’s Growing Urban Poor to Dependency

Once every four years, politicians descend on a hard luck steel town in Northeast, Ohio called Youngstown.

Cleavon McClendon has been staying at a shelter in Youngstown, Ohio since he lost his job due to poor transportation options. Photo: Huffington Post

With a 50 percent poverty rate — the worst in the country — Youngstown makes a compelling a campaign speech backdrop, illustrating everything that is wrong with government, or maybe America. Mitt Romney appeared there this week on the eve of Super Tuesday.

The irony of the situation is, of course, that decades of promises have done little to improve the city’s lot. Since the decline of the steel industry that was its lifeblood 40 years ago, life has been very hard here for many people here. Despite recent promising efforts to rebuild the city around tech startups and downtown living, there’s definitely a class of people being left behind, with few options.

And transportation is at the heart of the problem.

Tom Zeller Jr., writing for the Huffington Post, summed up the problem facing Youngstown’s poor:

Exit the Madison Avenue Expressway onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just beyond a road sign advertising the Museum of Industry and Labor, and an elegant, pre-war building, red brick and multi-gabled, rises on your right. Built in 1931 and the former home of the West Federal YMCA branch, it is now owned by the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley, which houses dozens of this town’s homeless residents.

Cleavon McClendon, who recently lost his job working at a Bob Evans restaurant, is among them.

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As the Economy Grows and Adds Jobs, Americans Keep Driving Less

The 12-month moving average of vehicle miles traveled, adjusted for population. Graph: Dshort.com

Well, there you have it.

Driving is on the decline — even as the economy grows.

You can see in the above chart, created by analyst Doug Short and brought to our attention by Jonathan Maus at BikePortland, America’s shrinking appetite for car travel is outlasting the recession. As the Center for Clean Air Policy pointed out in a 2011 report, the U.S. economy is increasingly “decoupled” from how much Americans drive.

Adjusting for changes in population, the amount of driving on American roads has fallen to 1999 levels. The sustained decline in driving during a period of economic growth is unprecedented in the 41-year period tracked by Short.

Contrast the drop in driving with sunnier employment figures, and it’s clear what’s going on here isn’t due just to job losses and the recession:

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Mounting Transportation and Housing Costs Devour Household Budgets

In the Phoenix region, the yellow areas meet CNT's threshold for affordability, while the blue areas do not. Image: CNT

On Monday we wrote that Americans can’t afford a transportation bill that locks households into the expenses of car dependence. Yesterday the Center for Neighborhood Technology hammered the point home, releasing new data showing how communities are getting less and less affordable nationwide.

Only 28 percent of American communities meet CNT’s definition of “affordable,” which accounts for both housing and transportation costs. Today American families are paying more for housing and transportation than they did in 2000, according to CNT’s analysis:

Median housing costs, as reported by the US Census, have increased by nearly 37 percent nationwide, while the national median income has increased by approximately 22 percent. Average transportation costs in the geographies covered by both Indexes increased by more than 39 percent or $318 per month.

CNT attributes the growing burden of these basic costs to development in “location inefficient” places, where households have no choice but to shell out for an expensive mode of transport — driving. The findings come amid a Republican-led effort to pass a highway-centric, sprawl-favoring transportation bill, and a presidential campaign season where candidates are tripping over themselves to pander about gas prices without stating the obvious: reducing car dependence saves money.

CNT, a Chicago-based urban research think-tank, has long held that “affordability” shouldn’t be based on housing costs alone, but must incorporate transportation costs as well. Rather than following the conventional practice of dubbing housing affordable if it accounts for less than 30 percent of household income, CNT adds in transportation costs and sets the combined threshold at 45 percent, which changes the picture dramatically.

The result busts the “drive-till-you-qualify” myth that has driven suburban sprawl for decades, because the money saved on housing is often wiped out — and then some — by the costs of a longer commute, especially when that commute is dependent upon — and therefore sensitive to — the price of gasoline.

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Maps Show Striking Link Between Car Commuting and Obesity

Check out these two maps, the first showing obesity rates (by county) in the United States and the second showing the percentage of commuters who travel by car (via Planetizen).

Obesity rates are highest in Appalachia and the Southeast United States. Image: Planetizen

A map showing the percentage of car commuters shows a strikingly similar pattern.

Researchers Anne Price and Ariel Godwin at Planetizen caution readers not to conflate correlation and causation. However, when comparing other economic and demographic characteristics (unemployment, educational attainment, income), no other maps displayed such striking similarities.

Furthermore, when the research team created a scatterplot comparing obesity rates in U.S. counties with commuting patterns, a “strong relationship” emerged.

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Trapped By Car Dependence: Stories From Commute-Battered Americans

Meet Darren Flenoy, a Bay Area security guard who lives 40 miles from work. Gas costs him about $500 a month. His car payment is another $500. On top of that, he spends $80 per month on insurance and $180 on tolls.

In total, Darren’s commute costs him half of his monthly income. He must work seven days a week to make ends meet.

Then there’s Ro, a 23-year-old recent college graduate who lives with her parents in Vallejo, California. To reach her job in San Francisco, she must commute 20 miles in her 1994 Nissan Pathfinder to a BART station.

Gas costs her $20 to $30 dollars per day. Sometimes in order to make ends meet, she skips lunch.

There are thousands — millions — of Americans with stories just like theirs. A Georgia mother who commutes two hours daily. A college student who uses student loans to pay for gas. A contractor whose unpredictable gas expenses force him to reduce staff.

These people and others are sharing their stories on a blog called The Energy Trap. The premise of the project, run by the New America Foundation’s Lisa Margonelli, is that because many Americans have so few choices outside of automobile travel, they are effectively “trapped” in a vicious cycle where they must own a car to hold a job, but the cost of their commute consumes much of their income. For an average American household with an annual income of $50,000, car ownership costs about $8,000 a year — more than they will pay in taxes or spend on healthcare.

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Time to See Older Drivers Through Dry Eyes

“Have you cried at your desk at work yet today? Would you like to?” Time Magazine recently asked, inviting its readers to indulge in emotion on behalf of an Iowa couple whose story went viral last week. Gordon and Norma Yeager died as the result of a car crash, the same way about 630 Americans die per week but with scant media attention. The Yeagers, after seven decades of marriage, passed away holding hands in the hospital.

Norma and Gordon Yeager died following a car crash this month. Photo: Times-Republican

And while this heartwarming story (more about the couple’s sweet life than their sad death) seems unique, it is not. It is quite common for the media to miss the point in stories about crashes involving older drivers.

While we don’t know the medical facts of this particular case, the elderly are more likely to die or sustain debilitating injuries in crashes that would cause less serious harm to younger people. After age 70, drivers are twice as likely to be involved in fatal crashes, per mile driven, as they were when middle-aged; after age 85, they are nine times more dangerous to themselves and others.

Two weeks ago, Gordon Yeager failed to yield at an intersection. He and his wife died. The crash sent another couple to the hospital. Missing from most media reports was the fact that Gordon Yeager “was facing pending action by the Iowa Department of Transportation to have his license removed” at the time.

The media conversation around aging drivers tends to focus on the anguish surrounding the question of when and how to take the car keys from Grandma or Grandpa, but rarely do these stories take us all the way to a family’s decision to do so. In a landscape built for cars and a culture built on the sanctity of independence, it feels horrible to be responsible for circumscribing a loved one’s life. As hinted at by the inconclusiveness of these stories, we often avoid this responsibility. Because there’s more hand-wringing than decision-making going on, it can take several traffic crashes before a driver is barred from the road, whether voluntarily or by family members or the government.

The desirability of extending the driving life of older people is largely taken as a given. Consequently, the media tend to play up assuaging statistics showing that older drivers tend to self-regulate and drive less; they offer non-threatening solutions such as more driver education, more automotive technology, or use of car-based services.

It would be better to focus not on the means — driving the car — but the motive, which is maintaining the mobility that a landscape built around personal vehicles will inevitably deny the aged.

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Exxon: ‘One Mega-Highway, Please.’ Texas: ‘Coming Right Up’

It’s generally difficult to determine exactly how and to what extent the shadowy hand of Big Oil is at work in our publicly funded infrastructure decisions.

ExxonMobil wants to move its headquarters 10 miles further from the city of Houston. And that's all the reason Texas needs to spend $5.2 billion on a highway. Photo: Bloomberg

Some of the more notable exceptions over the past few years have included the Koch Brothers-Scott Walker Wisconsin roads bonanza. Or the attempted assassination of the Cincinnati Streetcar by Ohio’s asphalt lobbiest-turned-DOT Director, Jerry Wray.

But Texas has just taken self-interested interference in public infrastructure projects by an oil company to a whole new level.

Nevermind that the state can’t afford it. Or that the region doesn’t have the congestion to justify it. The Houston region is renewing its push for a $5.2 billion third outerbelt at the behest of ExxonMobil.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the state is short about $315 billion — with a b — short of what is needed just to keep its existing highways in good repair and moving smoothly.

But Exxon has apparently pulled the well-worn trump card for private businesses seeking massive public subsidy in the form of roadways: it has threatened to leave the region. The multinational oil corporation has plans for a 385-acre campus, naturally, outside the reach of Houston’s two existing outerbelts, according to the Huffington Post.

The commission’s vote in support of the project was unanimous, and if all goes as planned, the segments of the road adjoining ExxonMobil will go online just as the company’s new campus, which sits about 10 miles up the road from its old campus, is completed in 2015.

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