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California Has Officially Ditched Car-Centric ‘Level of Service’

Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Changes in how the state manages transportation changes promise to drive it even lower. Photo: ##http://www.peaktraffic.org/graphics/vmt-california.jpg##Peak Traffic##

Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Changes in how the state manages transportation changes promise to drive it even lower. Photo: Peak Traffic

Ding, dong…LOS is dead.

At least as far as the state of California is concerned.

California will no longer consider vehicle delay an "environmental impact." ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/pbo31/122200686/##pbo31##.

California will no longer consider vehicle delay an “environmental impact.” pbo31.

Level of Service (LOS) has been the standard by which the state measures the transportation impacts of major developments and changes to roads. Level of Service is basically a measurement of how many cars can be pushed through an intersection in a given time. If a project reduced a road’s Level of Service it was considered bad — no matter how many other benefits the project might create.

Now, thanks to legislation passed last year and a yearlong effort by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), California will no longer consider “bad” LOS a problem that needs fixing under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) . This won’t just lead to good projects being approved more quickly and easily, but also to better mitigation measures for transportation impacts.

OPR today released a draft of its revised guidelines [PDF], proposing to substitute Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) for LOS.

In short, instead of measuring whether or not a project makes it less convenient to drive, it will now measure whether or not a project contributes to other state goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing multimodal transportation, preserving open spaces, and promoting diverse land uses and infill development.

“This is exciting,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal and director of strategy at Nelson\Nygaard. “Changing from LOS to VMT does away with a  contradiction that applicants currently face under CEQA. The contradiction between the state’s greenhouse gas reduction requirements and the transportation analysis requirements is no more.”

This revision in state law promises many positive changes. Read more…

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Arizonans Driving Like It’s 1994

Image: Arizona Public Interest Research Group

As in the rest of America, per capita driving in Arizona started to drop years before the Great Recession hit. Graph: Arizona Public Interest Research Group

Here’s more evidence that there’s a shift underway in how Americans get around: The Arizona Public Interest Research Group has released a new report [PDF] showing that residents of this sprawling Sun Belt state are driving less and taking transit more.

Between 2005 and 2012, the average number of miles driven by each Arizona resident declined 10.5 percent, according to PIRG. They are now driving fewer miles per capita than they did in 1994. These trends closely track national driving declines, and show the phenomenon isn’t limited to compact coastal metro areas.

In notoriously sprawling Phoenix, people are starting to ditch their cars. Between 2006 and 2011, the share of households with two or more vehicles decreased 2.9 percent, PIRG reports. And the total number of cars and trucks on the state’s roads is dropping, even as the population grows. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of registered vehicles in Arizona declined 4 percent.

The authors attribute these trends to a combination of factors, including the economic downturn, the retirement of Baby Boomers, rising gas prices, increases in telecommuting, and the changing preferences of Millennials.

“It is unknown whether this increase in carless households is the result of changing preferences or economic hardship, but it does represent a dramatic reversal of the national trend toward increased vehicle ownership since at least the 1960s,” write authors Serena Unrein and Diane E . Brown.

Meanwhile, transit ridership is on the rise in Arizona’s major cities. In Phoenix, between 2005 and 2010, total transit trips increased 16 percent. Part of the increase is certainly due to the opening of Phoenix’s light rail system in 2008. That system has been outpacing ridership projections. In the Tucson area, growth has been more dramatic. During the same period, total transit trips in metro Tucson increased 25 percent, PIRG reports.

Read more…

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While the Economy Grows, Americans Continue to Drive Less

Americans have driven fewer miles per capita every year since 2005. Image: Doug Short

Americans have driven fewer miles per capita every year since 2005. Image: Doug Short

The last time the average American drove this little, Bill Clinton was president and Seinfeld was the most-watched show in the country. Not since 1994 has per capita driving been as low as it is now, according to new data from the Federal Highway Administration compiled by economist Doug Short.

Per capita driving has been on the wane for nearly nine years and now stands at 9.3 percent below the 2005 peak:

Population adjusted driving is going down, down, down. Image: Doug Short

Population adjusted driving is going down, down, down. Graph: Doug Short

The steady decline in the driving rate means that even as population increases, total motor vehicle travel has inched upward just 0.2 percent between March 2013 and March 2014. For five years, total driving has essentially flatlined, and in the last year Americans drove 2.47 percent fewer miles than in the peak 12-month period:

Read more…

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Dueling Forecasts: Does the Energy Dept. Know Something U.S. DOT Doesn’t?

Tony Dutzik is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Group. This article was originally posted on the Frontier Group’s blog.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) — the data and analytical wing of the Energy Department — is out today with a fascinating analysis of changing driving trends and their implications for America’s energy future. The analysis, part of the EIA’s annual package of forecasts called the “Annual Energy Outlook,” reviews recent changes in demographic, economic, technological and other factors affecting the number of miles Americans drive.

It also serves as a telling contrast to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s own recent forecast of vehicle travel, presented in the biennial “Conditions and Performance” report.

We’ve criticized the U.S. DOT before for regularly overshooting the mark when it comes to forecasting vehicle travel, exaggerating the need for spending on highway expansion and maintenance. The EIA report, on the other hand, takes a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to forecasting than the DOT’s reliance on untrustworthy state data and straight-line projections. It also gives us some key indications of what slower VMT growth might mean for our energy future.

DOT is from Mars, EIA is from Venus – Diverging Forecasts

The EIA and DOT have very different thoughts about how the future will play out when it comes to trends in driving. The DOT forecasts an immediate resumption of rates of vehicle travel growth that haven’t been seen for a decade, while the EIA assumes that, while driving might pick up again soon, it also might not, and that, to the extent driving does increase in the future, it is likely to grow way more slowly than it did during the post-war Driving Boom. This is the case we made in our 2013 report, A New Direction.

Read more…

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Fitch Ratings: Failure to Invest in Transit Could Hurt the Whole Economy

One of the country’s leading financial ratings agencies is warning that if America doesn’t change how it invests in transit, the whole economy could suffer.

After decades of steady growth, vehicle miles driven has stagnated in recent years. Americans are driving no more total miles now than in 2004. Image: ##http://www.investing.com/analysis/vehicle-miles-driven:-another-population-adjusted-low-206969##Doug Short/Investing##

After decades of steady growth, vehicle miles driven has stagnated in recent years. Americans are driving no more total miles now than in 2004. Image: Doug Short/Investing

“Public transportation investment strategies will need to transform if trends toward increased multifamily housing, declines in driving, and increasing public transportation usage continue over the long run,” Fitch said.

In an article published March 12, Fitch says there are signs of a major shakeup in U.S. transportation. The ratings group points to trends away from driving among millennials and an uptick in transit use. Fitch also cites record-breaking levels of multi-family housing construction, which represented almost one-third of new housing starts last year.

Fitch writes:

In our view, the transportation needs of the next 50 years will be markedly different from those of the past 50 years. U.S. policymakers must begin adapting their current decisions to these future needs. If these trends persist and meaningful policy changes are not made, the risk to the public transportation system would have negative implications for the entire economy.

Read more…

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The Fuzzy Math in the Road Lobby’s Memo to Congress

ARTBA would prefer that you not look too closely at this graph. Thank you for your cooperation. Image: Doug Short/##http://www.investing.com/analysis/vehicle-miles-driven:-another-population-adjusted-low-206969##Investing##

ARTBA would prefer that you not look too closely at this graph. Thank you for your cooperation. Graph: Doug Short/Investing

Don’t know what to make of the news that U.S. driving rates have dropped for the ninth year in a row? Looking for guidance about whether your state or city should be wantonly expanding roads or investing in transit, biking, and walking? The road lobby thinks you should turn to them for independent, unbiased analysis of these trends. Never fear, the road lobby says: Americans are driving more than ever. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. More lanes for everybody!

That’s the word from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which issued a memo Friday [PDF] to Congressional aides clarifying some “false claims” about transportation trends.

In virtually every recent congressional hearing and many media reports about federal transportation policy, the false claim that “Americans are driving less” emerges in some capacity. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show U.S. vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased 0.3 percent in 2012 and 0.6 percent in 2013. The upward trend is anticipated to continue well into the future as the nation’s economy and population continues to grow. This factual disconnect confuses discussions about the relative viability of various means to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund and support future federal highway and public transportation investments. The reality is that American driving trends are driven largely by macro-economic forces, not agenda-seizing assertions about shifts in societal behavior.

Take that, agenda seizers! See, VMT is increasing — albeit slower than the population, and slower than transit ridership. Drivers have already made up a third of the miles “lost” since the recession (and surely they’ll make up the rest any day now). The last 70 months of stagnant driving is nothing but a blip. Right?

Read more…

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Driving Declines Spell Big Trouble for Turnpikes

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike has declined 10 percent since 2005. Turnpike officials had predicted it would rise 3 to 5 percent annually. Photo: Wikipedia

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike has declined 10 percent since 2005. Turnpike officials had predicted it would rise 68 percent by 2023. Photo: Wikipedia

What the New Jersey Turnpike Authority did in 2005 was no different than what almost every other state and regional transportation agency was doing at the time. It predicted that traffic volumes would rise at a healthy clip every year for about 30 years into the future. Then it estimated its revenues based on those figures and issued bonds for a $2.5 billion road widening project.

Today we know that traffic hasn’t risen at all since 2005. New Jersey’s projections weren’t just a little wrong — they were wildly inaccurate. The bonds were predicated on a 68 percent increase in traffic by 2023. It’s not going to happen: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that turnpike traffic has actually dropped 10 percent since 2005.

Even so, Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, told the Inquirer that local leaders aren’t blinking.

This chart shows the combined 20-year traffic projections of state and local governments in recent years compared to actual traffic levels. Image: State Smart Transportation Initiative

This chart shows the combined 20-year traffic projections of state and regional transportation agencies around the U.S. in recent years — the colored lines — compared to actual traffic levels — the black line. Image: State Smart Transportation Initiative

“We need two or three more years of data” before reconsidering the assumptions, he said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission made a similar gamble in 2007, when it predicted traffic would rise 3 to 5 percent annually and started issuing up to $900 million in bonds annually for road and transit projects around the state based on those projections. Rather than rising, the Inquirer reports, traffic has been flat. Pennsylvania hoped to repay the bonds with the increased toll revenues and by adding tolls to I-80.

But the additional traffic never materialized, and the Federal Highway Administration rejected the proposed toll on I-80. Now the turnpike is paying much less every year for state transportation projects, but it is still saddled with a rising debt load — $8 billion, according to the Inquirer.

Here’s the kicker. Nikolaus Grieshaber, the turnpike’s chief financial officer, told the Inquirer that Pennsylvania is revising its projections downward. It will now predict a traffic increase of 1.5 percent annually.

Nationally, vehicle miles traveled increased 0.6 percent last year, so Pennsylvania is still predicting its traffic will increase two and half times faster than the nation as a whole in 2013.

33 Comments

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: U.S. DOT Fails to Get Travel Forecasting Right

The U.S. Department of Transportation seems to be stuck in a bizarre time warp.  For nine years in a row Americans have decreased their average driving miles. Yet U.S. DOT’s most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation’s transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030.

Times have changed. Why hasn't DOT gotten the memo? Image: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/5124536635/##Flickr/James Vaughan##

Times have changed. Why hasn’t DOT gotten the memo? Image: Flickr/James Vaughan

Just how out of whack is that forecast? Consider the following:

  • Vehicle travel hasn’t increased by even 1 percent in any year since 2004. Yet the U.S. DOT assumes that driving will increase at a rate significantly faster than that every year on average through 2030.
  • The new report uses for one of its two scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999.
  • In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn’t even get the past right. The report “projects” (based on 2010 data) that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone.

Why should we care about all this? With transportation funds increasingly scarce — and especially with Congress due to reauthorize the nation’s transportation law — policy-makers need good guidance about where to invest. A sensible approach, especially given the recent decline in driving and increasing demand for transit, would be to plow a greater share of those limited resources into expanding access to public transportation and active transportation modes while focusing highway spending on fixing our existing roads and bridges.

Instead, the U.S. DOT’s travel forecast is used as justification to propose a dramatic increase in highway spending to fund all the new and expanded highways that the DOT presumes we’ll need to accommodate all of those imagined new cars and drivers. The agency asserts that the nation would need to spend between $124 billion and $146 billion each year to maintain and improve the highway system — numbers that are sure to find their way immediately into highway lobby press releases and be repeatedly cited in congressional hearings.

What makes the DOT forecast so bewildering is that the agency — elsewhere in the very same document — acknowledges the strong possibility that many of the factors that have caused the recent drop in driving may be long-lasting. The report states:

Read more…

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As Driving Continues to Stagnate, Some States Finally Start to Adjust

The Maryland Department of Transportation expected driving to continue on an optimistic upward trend after the recession ended. Now the state is reconsidering. Image: SSTI

In 2009, the Maryland Department of Transportation projected that driving would start to increase again after the recession ended. After driving continued to stagnate, the state reconsidered its traffic forecast. Image: SSTI

Another year, another decline in per capita driving. For the ninth year in a row, the cumulative distance Americans drive is down, adjusting for population, according to new data from the Federal Highway Administration. Total driving by all Americans has fallen about 2 percent since 2007 — or 7 percent per capita — and is lower than it was in 2005.

But a decade of stagnant driving came and went without major adjustments at most state departments of transportation — the agencies responsible for spending tens of billions of dollars in federal transportation funds each year. The typical state DOT still makes decisions based on models that assume driving will continue to grow forever. The result is billions of dollars spent on unnecessary roads.

But there’s some positive news on that front this week. At long last, according to the research team at the State Smart Transportation Initiative, some states are starting to adjust their traffic projections to better reflect reality.

Chris McCahill at SSTI writes:

Maryland is an example of this trend. In 2009, the state’s long-range plan projected statewide VMT [vehicle miles traveled] growth of 2 percent per year through 2030 [pictured above]. The plan dismissed the recent decline as a temporary consequence of high fuel prices and the economic downturn, asserting, “there is no clear evidence that Marylanders will continue to drive less in the future.” However, in its updated plan released just last month, the agency has left out projections entirely, declaring that “a return to strong annual VMT growth is unlikely and per capita VMT [...] is actually decreasing.” A handful of other states have either dampened their projections or shifted their focus toward VMT reduction goals and transportation demand management efforts.

McCahill says most states are still projecting that driving will start rising steadily again soon, despite mounting evidence that the recent decline signifies a long-term trend. But some are starting to see the writing on the wall.

Read more…

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2013: Another Year of Falling Per-Capita Driving in U.S.

This post was originally published on the blog of the Frontier Group, where the author is a senior policy analyst.

The number of miles driven in the United States continues to stagnate, even amidst economic recovery, according to just-released figures from the Federal Highway Administration.

According to the agency’s December 2013 Traffic Volume Trends report, the number of vehicle-miles traveled on U.S. highways increased last year by approximately 0.6 percent – a rate of increase a tick slower than the 0.7 percent rate of population growth in the United States during 2013.

To put this in the context of longer-term trends:

  • The total number of vehicle-miles traveled in the U.S. remains about 2 percent below its 2007 peak. The number of miles driven in 2013 was lower than that of the 12-month period ending February 2005 – a nearly nine-year period of stagnation in total vehicle travel unprecedented in modern U.S. history.
  • The average number of vehicle-miles traveled per capita in 2013 was about 7 percent below its 2004 peak and was the lowest since 1996 – a roughly 17-year span of stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel.

Looking forward, continued stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel would have major implications for public policy:

  • Growth in traffic volumes would be insufficient to justify highway expansion projects in all but the fastest-growing areas.
  • Congestion in most areas would grow only slowly, and could largely be addressed through measures to improve the efficiency of the current transportation system (including by expanding access to public transportation and through the use of information technology and possibly pricing), rather than through costly capacity additions.
  • Revenue from fuel taxes would continue to decline as increases in driving fail to make up for improvements in vehicle fuel economy (and for the impacts of inflation in places where gasoline taxes are not indexed).
  • Increasing highway “user fees” – gas taxes, tolls, VMT fees – to recover that lost revenue would likely further depress vehicle travel by increasing the cost of driving.

With Congress on the hook for reauthorizing the nation’s transportation law this year – and with the Highway Trust Fund only months away from going broke – the latest evidence of continued stagnation in driving demands that our nation’s leaders plot a different course for our transportation future that recognizes changing trends in how Americans travel and focuses scarce resources on addressing America’s 21st century transportation priorities.