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Posts from the "Car Dependence" Category

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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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Has America Passed Peak Car Use, or Is It Just a Cyclical Decline?

Fast Company is the latest media outlet to trumpet the decline of driving, with a look at the phenomenon dubbed “peak car use.”

Are non-automotive modes squeezing out driving? The jury's still out. Photo: GizMag

In an article titled “We Are Approaching Peak Car Use,” the magazine examines an Australian study [PDF] which found driving rates are falling in a number of cities in Europe, North America and Australia.

Explanations include rising fuel prices, the increasing appeal of urbanism, and another interesting theory: that many urban areas have reached the limit people are willing to drive as part of their daily commute (about one hour).

The study authors conclude that traffic engineers need to change their models and rethink the assumption that traffic will increase annually.

Meanwhile, new data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics adds to the body of research about the decline in driving — but whether that amounts to “peak car use” is worth further consideration. The report shows a leveling off in vehicle miles traveled, beginning at the end of 2007.

Between 1980 and 2007, urban vehicle miles traveled increased 133 percent, or almost five percent annually. But from 2007 to 2009, urban driving held steady. The change in driving in rural areas was more impressive. Rural vehicle miles traveled declined four percent from 2007 to 2009 after increasing at an average rate of two percent annually between 1980 and 2007.

These numbers don’t point to a cause. But the decline in driving aligns pretty well with the greatest period of economic contraction in a generation. And driving declines have long been linked to recessions. Which leaves us wondering: Is the decline part of a lasting trend, or does it just reflect a cyclical pattern tied to the economy?

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How Gas-Dependent Is Your State?

How big a bite gas prices take out of your wallet varies by state. Photo: Natural Resources Defense Council

It’s no secret that higher gas prices are hitting American pocketbooks hard. To a remarkable extent, however, exactly how much pain Americans are experiencing is a function of where they live.

A report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council details how geography impacts our vulnerability to gas price fluctuation.

Fuel pump pressure is most pronounced in Mississippi, where in 2010 residents spent an average $2,225 fueling up, or more than 7 percent of their income. Meanwhile, Connecticut dwellers were far better situated. Residents of this tiny Northeast state spent less than 3 percent of their income fueling up last year, or about $1,586.

The analysis found that motorists in the American Southeast fared worst, overall. South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia registered the second, third and fourth highest-paying positions, followed by rural Idaho. Study authors attributed this to a regional orientation toward sprawl and less fuel efficient vehicles, among other factors.

Meanwhile, consumers in the Northeast suffered the least as gas prices soared. New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island followed Connecticut as the lowest spending states, with bike-friendly Colorado occupying the fifth position.

And in the first months of 2011, regional disparities have gotten even worse, the report found. April gas prices alone meant that Mississippi residents were spending a whopping 11 percent of their income on gas.

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Creative Crusaders Who Inspired Us in 2010

Travelling the country this past year promoting our book Carjacked, we met some pretty remarkable people who are working to reduce the price Americans pay for mobility. In the book we detail how our car dependent transportation system offers an awesome array of downsides, though they are often obscured by the auto industry’s relentless marketing blizzard.

We were uplifted to find so many insightful and inspiring folks working to increase awareness of, and provide solutions to, the problem of car dependency. Here are just a few of them.

Get Your Undriver’s License

The authors with their Undriver's licenses.

The authors with their Undriver's licenses.

Car crashes can be profoundly life altering, and the lasting changes they bring are only rarely positive. Julia Field’s 1987 crash, in which she totaled her Honda Civic, was an exception. At first, she reasonably feared that life without a car would be isolating and complicated. She soon came to experience it, though, as quite the opposite — liberating and simplifying. We met sunny Julia in drizzly Seattle when she cheerfully handed each of us a personal Undriver’s License™, just one of the brilliant tools of Undriving, the nonprofit initiative she founded and runs.

The guiding premise of the organization is to encourage less driving, not by discouraging driving per se, but by engaging people in experimenting with getting around without a car. The group issues their licenses online and at eco-festivals, street fairs, schools, transportation conferences and other events. The license is much more than a fun gimmick: It represents a pledge based on goals set by the individual Undriver, recognizing that we all have different transportation needs and resources and a strong desire to feel in control of our own mobility.

Want to know more?  Check out one of the many testimonials of Undrivers posted on YouTube.

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The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: The Last of the Streetsies 2010

We couldn’t put a bow on 2010 until we’d thanked those who contributed to the cause of sustainable transportation and smart growth last year and shaken our fist at those who’d done their darnedest for sprawl and highways. Check out our first two installments of national, state and local Streetsie winners. Here are our parting thoughts and your final votes. Then we can really move into 2011.

Ray LaHood stands on a table to thank bicyclists for working with him to reduce car dependency. Photo: Jonathan Maus

Ray LaHood stands on a table to thank bicyclists for working with him to reduce car dependency. Photo: Jonathan Maus

Happiest Occasion: 2010 did have its winning moments. It’s hard to debate that LaHood’s “Tabletop Speech” at the Bike Summit in March was one of the best – along with his subsequent declaration that “this is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” It still gives me chills.

LaHood literally jumped on a table in front of hundreds of cyclists and said that people around the country “want out of their cars; they want out of congestion; they want to live in livable neighborhoods.” And then he thanked the cyclists for hanging in there with the DOT as it transitions to being an engine of sustainability. “I’m very, very grateful!” Nearly 40 percent of Streetsblog readers agreed that this was the highlight of the year.

Good stuff, indeed. And we have LaHood to thank for some of the other bright spots last year, like two rounds of TIGER grants, providing over $2 billion to states for innovative transportation projects.

Some a-ha moments at the federal level won us over. For one, the feds are taking big strides on bringing health and environmental impacts, as well as performance metrics, into consideration when they make grants (instead of just looking at costs). And they’re realizing that transportation reform is health reform – Michelle Obama’s obesity task force even made the connection between active transportation options and healthy kids. Federal funding of bike/ped projects dipped from 2009’s all time high, but it’s still at impressive levels.

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