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Posts from the "VMT" Category

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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?

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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.

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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:

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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.

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T&I Chair Bill Shuster Complicates Matters With Push for VMT Fee

All options may be on the table for funding transportation, but Bill Shuster has chosen his.

Rep. Bill Shuster’s choice to bring more transportation funding may be the most effective long-term, but in the short term, its prospects are dim. Photo: Bloomberg

Rep. Shuster, head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, hasn’t been willing to commit to any one proposal for funding transportation until now. And his choice may make things complicated.

At a Bloomberg Government event yesterday, Shuster came out in favor of a plan to tax drivers not per gallon but per mile.

It seemed that after years of being too gun-shy to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t gone up for 20 years, there was beginning to be some resignation to the idea that it was necessary. In addition to the usual chorus from industry, a bipartisan group of governors recently urged Congress to act. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and his new co-chair at Building America’s Future, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are promoting a 10-cent tax hike.

Lawmakers who had previously declined to go on the record were starting to line up behind various proposals, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer suggesting a gas tax hike and Sen. Barbara Boxer offering a wholesale fee on oil.

After all, the bitter reality is this: U.S DOT’s new Highway Trust Fund web ticker says the Highway Account will go dry in August of this year, with the Transit Account staying solvent through the end of September, though just barely.

At the same time Shuster announced he was for a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, he also brought the hammer down on the idea of a gas tax hike.

“Economically, it is not the time” to raise the gas tax, he told the audience. “I just don’t believe the American people have the will out there, in the public or in Congress; even our president has said we’re not going to do that. We’ve got to figure out a different way at this point in time.”

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Transpo Agencies Are Terrible at Predicting Traffic Levels

This chart contrasts state DOTs' projected traffic volumes with those actually recorded by the Federal Highway Administration. Image: ##http://www.ssti.us/2013/12/new-travel-demand-projections-are-due-from-u-s-dot-will-they-be-accurate-this-time/?utm_source=SSTI+Community+of+Practice+Master+List&utm_campaign=cbd2d0b53a-December_6_2013_newsletter12_16_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f54dd1d9a6-cbd2d0b53a-45447449## SSTI##

Combined traffic projections from state and regional transportation agencies (the colored lines) have been wildly off the mark (the black line shows real traffic levels) for more than a decade. Image: SSTI

Americans’ travel behavior is changing dramatically. It seems like not a week passes without a new report about the decline in driving. But are state and local transportation agencies — which are responsible for much of the nation’s highway and transportation planning — keeping up with the facts on the ground? A review of the evidence by the State Smart Transportation Initiative finds the answer is a definitive “No.”

Forecasts and assumptions about ever-increasing traffic are often used to justify agency decisions to expand roads. But these assumptions are increasingly divorced from reality. In fact, state and regional agencies aren’t just wrong some of the time. State DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations are getting it wrong every year, over and over again, by significant margins, according to SSTI’s analysis.

In their most recent reporting to the Federal Highway Administration, state and regional transportation agencies used data from 2008 to predict that traffic volumes would reach a combined 3.3 trillion miles nationally in 2012. Last year, a few months after that forecast was publicly released, real-world data already showed that the forecast wasn’t even close. Transportation agencies had collectively overestimated how many miles Americans would drive in 2012 by 11 percent. That is the equivalent of adding five “average-sized” states to the total, SSTI reports.

What’s worse, these wildly incorrect traffic assumptions are routinely used to justify costly road expansions.

SSTI reviewed every 20-year traffic forecast submitted by state and regional agencies to FHWA since 1999 (these predictions are in a document called the Conditions and Performance Report to Congress). It turns out that the 20-year projections overestimated future traffic volumes in every single year the reports could be compared against data on actual miles driven by Americans. The 1999 report, for example, overestimated actual driving in 2012 by a whopping 22 percent.

SSTI’s Eric Sundquist concluded that states and MPOs “generally have not updated their models and assumptions to account for current conditions, as if they expect the year to be 1980 forever.”

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Twin Cities Region Grows While Car Use Shrinks

Residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Region are letting their feet off the gas.

Minneapolis is taking fewer driving trips overall, but car commuting still predominates. Image: Metropolitan Council

According to the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council’s decennial travel behavior survey [PDF], vehicle trips in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region dropped 18 percent between 2000 and 2010. People who reside in the area are making almost 1.5 million fewer car trips a day than they did at the beginning of the last decade. The region added about 200,000 people over that time.

Between 2000 and 2010, transit use inched up to 3.2 percent of trips from 2.5 percent. The Minneapolis region added its 12-mile Hiawatha light rail line in 2004 and has also added some express bus service. But that doesn’t totally explain the reduction in overall vehicle trips, which still account for 84 percent of all trips in the region.

A rise in telecommuting and online shopping is another factor. Between 2005 and 2010, telecommuting rose 73 percent, Metro Council says. The well-documented trend of young people driving less and delaying getting drivers licenses appears to be at play as well. Minneapolis-area planners also think people are just making less discretionary trips, perhaps trying to rein in spending because of rising gas prices and a rocky economy. Gas prices doubled between 2002 and 2011, the organization points out.

One very clear positive sign is the growing popularity of living in the central city. According to Metro Council, 23 percent of the region’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 occurred in the cities of Minneapolis or St. Paul. In the previous decade, it was just 5 percent.

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Beyond “Level of Service” — New Methods for Evaluating Streets

Streetsblog reported earlier this month that transportation agencies are increasingly aware of the insidious consequences of using “Level of Service” as the primary metric for their projects. Because Level of Service only rewards the movement of motor vehicles, it promotes dangerous, high-speed streets and sprawling land use.

The question remains: How should streets and development projects be measured?

If this is what you want for your street, Level of Service won't get you there. You need a different performance measure. Photo: Lancaster Online

We mentioned that some places are switching to an analysis called multi-modal Level of Service. But Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard, says there are problems with that approach as well.

Multi-modal Level of Service, he says, takes “all of the narrow thinking around delay for cars and applies that same thinking to all the other modes.” For example, MM-LOS assumes pedestrians and transit riders have the same need as vehicles: “lack of congestion,” or space between others who travel the same way.

But what works for cars isn’t necessarily what works for other modes. For example, MM-LOS views “transit crowding” as a wholly negative thing. On this measure, an infill development might be penalized for leading to “crowding,” but a sprawling greenfield development would face no penalty, since it would produce fewer transit riders.

According to Tumlin, searching for a direct replacement for Level of Service is the wrong way to go, because part of the problem with Level of Service is the narrowness of its scope.

“LOS tells us about one thing [vehicle delay at intersections], but it doesn’t tell us about anything else,” says Tumlin. “What are all of the things we want our transportation system to do, and how do we measure whether it’s doing that or not?”

Tumlin’s advice to transportation professionals and public officials is to adopt performance measures based on expressed community values as well as the specifics of the project at hand.

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SSTI to Transport Officials: Start Planning for a Future With Less Driving

For a long time in the United States, driving activity moved in step with the economy. Since economic growth was fairly steady, consistent growth in driving was built into all the traffic modeling the engineers used to plan and build streets and transportation infrastructure.

Annual, per-capita vehicle miles traveled by Americans have been declining for eight years. Image: State Smart Transportation Campaign

But now per capita driving has declined eight straight years in America. Total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) hasn’t really budged in five years, and remains below its peak. A number of things have fundamentally changed since the time when you could chart driving behavior into the future using an upward line, according to a new paper by the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a think-tank based out of the University of Wisconsin which counts 19 state DOTs among its partners.

SSTI rejects the idea that driving declines reflect the recent recession, noting that the current slump began in 2004, well before the recession started. Driving activity actually began to decouple from economic growth in 2000, SSTI says, and today they do not appear to be strongly related.

The reasons for the current decline, SSTI reports, are broad cultural and economic trends that are likely to be “permanent,” or “remain in effect for a generation or more.”

In the decades prior, driving increases were triggered by factors like rising household income and auto ownership rates, increasing participation in the workforce by women, and the swelling ranks of Baby Boomers in their most active driving years. Today, however, those trends have abated or are moving in the opposite direction.

Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, and entering a stage in their lives when they will drive less and less. The American market for car owners is mostly saturated. Meanwhile, the growth in women’s workforce participation leveled off more than 10 years ago.

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