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Posts from the "VMT" Category


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.


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: ## 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.


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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Ten Questions (and Answers) About Oregon’s New VMT Charge

This summer, Oregon’s legislature passed a bill creating a vehicle-miles-traveled fee. For those who recognize the shortcomings of the gas tax for charging for road use, it was a big victory. But the program authorized by the state is a modest one, creating a voluntary program for just 5,000 drivers of high-efficiency vehicles.

Jim Whitty reads a mileage transponder in Oregon. Photo: NPR

ODOT’s Jim Whitty, the architect of the program, has been on a whirlwind tour, responding to requests from states for more information about what they’re doing in Oregon and how they’re pulling it off. Last week he came to Washington, DC, to speak with members of Congress, key Senate committee aides, White House staff — and this reporter. I got answers to these 10 questions I had about the new plan.

How did Oregon get past privacy concerns? They bagged the idea of requiring any kind of GPS tracker. “You can’t mandate GPS and get this done,” Whitty said. “You’ve got to give people options that don’t involve GPS.” Though a GPS tracker isn’t really more of a violation of privacy than your cell phone or E-ZPass, the issue has been an obstacle to rational discussion about the pros and cons of a VMT system. In Oregon’s first pilot VMT program, they gave out trackers, but people didn’t like having government surveillance devices in their cars. For the second pilot, this past winter, people could pick their own device from the marketplace, and they found that more comfortable. Plus, there’s an option to just report mileage from the odometer.

Was it hard to convince the ACLU? Actually, “the negotiations were really easy,” Whitty said. With just a few meetings, they worked out a way to meet the privacy requirements of the ACLU and the operability requirements of ODOT. What they came up with became Section 9 of the bill, which limits who has access to the data and requires those who have access — including private sector vendors — to protect it. And then the data is destroyed 30 days after it’s required for payment processing or dispute resolution.

Is this another pilot? Technically, no — it’s a permanent program. But it’s a severely curtailed one. Aside from the limitations inherent in a system that doesn’t mandate GPS tracking, it’s also designed as a voluntary program for just 5,000 users. That’s not how permanent programs are designed. If this works, it will only make sense for it to someday be universal — at least for some vehicle types.

Will gas guzzlers ever be part of a VMT pricing scheme? Probably not. It would be a net revenue loser for the state, since those vehicles pay more in fuel taxes than they ever would in VMT fees. And drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles bristle at the idea that people who pollute more would get a better deal. The fact is, what sold the Oregon legislature on the VMT fee was the idea that it promotes fairness and requires all drivers — even those with electric cars — to pay for the infrastructure they use.

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Old Solutions: U.S. DOT’s Proposed Strategic Plan Falls Short

Andy Clarke is the president of the League of American Bicyclists. This article originally appeared on the League’s blog.

On Tuesday, August 27th the U.S. Department of Transportation released a draft strategic plan for public comment. The 94-page document lays out how the U.S. Department of Transportation proposes to manage our transportation system for the next five years — guiding the work of some 57,000 federal employees and heavily influencing some $205 billion of annual spending on highways in this country.

Unless the "new generation" is going to look like this, maybe U.S. DOT should put some different ideas in its five-year plan. Photo: Cycling Savvy

The comment period closes September 10. (You can read our comments on the draft strategic plan here.)

The bold title of the plan, “Transportation for a New Generation,” suggests some exciting changes and a new direction… and the numbers are certainly there in the plan to back up a decisive new transportation strategy. Consider:

  • 32,367 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2011
  • Driver behavior causes or contributes to 90 percent of crashes
  • The economic costs of traffic crashes –- in 2000 -– was $230 billion
  • One-third of Americans do not drive
  • The U.S. population is expected to increase from 310 million in 2010 to 335 million in 2018 and 439 million by 2050
  • Traffic congestion creates a $121 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy
  • The average American adult aged 25-54 drives 12,700 miles a year and spends one month in his or her car each year; and each car costs $7,658 to buy, maintain and operate
  • Cars and trucks are responsible for 83 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which are 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have increased 21 percent since 1990 — 60 percent of that increase is due to transportation.

That all certainly points to the need for a new direction in transportation –- these problems are huge, the costs are staggering, and we’ve got $205 billion annually to spend on highways alone to do something about these problems.

Alas, that’s not what “Transportation for a New Generation” offers. Not at all.

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More Evidence That Unemployment Doesn’t Explain the Decline in Driving

Only one state shows up on the Top Ten lists for both VMT reduction and unemployment increase: Florida. But Nevada, whose jobless rate has tripled, actually increased driving. Source: U.S. PIRG

For those who say driving rates will pick right back up again when the economy’s really humming, here’s something to chew on: In a report released this morning, “Moving Off the Road,” U.S. PIRG presents further evidence that unemployment rates and driving rates have changed independently of each other.

Transportation reformers have made the case that there are multiple reasons behind the dip in driving rates, and that many of these factors will continue to have an impact long after this economic slump is over. If the change is in fact a lasting one, it signals that conventional forecasts of escalating traffic are wrong, strengthening the case for overhauling car-centric transportation policies in favor of transit, biking, walking, and more efficient land use.

Today’s report from U.S. PIRG builds on their previous, groundbreaking research showing that young people are leading the reduction in driving rates and that the Driving Boom has decisively ended. These findings have become common knowledge, frequently referenced by top federal officials, members of Congress, and even international credit rating agencies.

The Drop in VMT Isn’t About Unemployment

The PIRG report compares changes in driving and joblessness in all 50 states from 2005 to 2011. The authors call it “a useful natural experiment to examine different factors behind America’s reduction in driving,” and it provides ample evidence that unemployment doesn’t explain the drop in VMT. If the Americans were driving less because jobs are scarcer, for instance, it would stand to reason that the states hardest hit by unemployment would be those with the biggest drops in VMT. But that’s simply not true.

For example, the top state for unemployment growth was Nevada, whose jobless rate tripled between 2005 and 2011. And Nevada is one of just four states that’s actually driving more now than during the peak years of 2004-2005. (Two of those four states are in the Gulf South — Alabama and Louisiana — where the devastating Hurricane Katrina obviously affected travel during the driving peak year of 2005.)

And the number one state for VMT drop? Alaska, which has reduced its mileage by a whopping 16.23 percent since 2005. So Alaska must be suffering with staggering unemployment, right? Not so. Every state in the union experienced some growth in unemployment, but in Alaska it was just a 10 percent increase — from 6.9 to 7.6 percent.

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Even If the Trust Fund Were Flush, We Should Still Switch to a VMT Fee

By now the problems with the gas tax are well reported. Revenues from the tax have been declining for years because of improved fuel economy and alternative-fuel vehicles. The result is a growing gap between the money needed to maintain and improve our transportation system and the money available in the Highway Trust Fund.

A dashboard-mounted transponder like this can record mileage. Photo: ODOT

The federal gas tax has not been raised in 20 years. Instead, Congress has relied on repeated transfers from the general fund to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Transportation experts agree that adopting a more sustainable method of funding makes sense. One option under consideration is a user fee based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Oregon is testing out this system with an eye toward replacing the gas tax.

A VMT fee would charge drivers according to the number of miles they drive, rather than the amount of gasoline they consume. The fee could also be varied based on time of day, location or vehicle type.

If the charge is set appropriately, it could provide sufficient revenues to properly invest in the nation’s transportation system. But as important as that is, revenue isn’t the only reason to make the switch.

Here are five other reasons why it makes sense to adopt a mileage-based system.

The current system lacks fairness.

Drivers of hybrid vehicles and other fuel-efficient cars pay less in gas taxes than drivers of other cars for the same number of road miles. A mileage-based user fee system restores the link between road use and payment for all drivers.

The gas tax has also become regressive since it is likely that higher-income drivers are more able to afford the more expensive hybrid (or 20 years from now, electric) vehicles.

Drivers can also often fill up their gas tanks in one jurisdiction and do most of their driving somewhere else. This means that many drivers aren’t paying for the upkeep of the roads on which they drive. A fee based on road mileage would ensure drivers pay for road use no matter where they drive.

It could ease traffic congestion.

The per-mile charge can also be varied according to time of day or location, leading to the efficient use of our road network and less traffic congestion. According to the latest urban mobility report by the Texas Transportation Institute, U.S. drivers spent an unnecessary 5.5 billion hours behind the wheel and purchased an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel due to congestion in 2011. Lost worker productivity and other indirect costs add to the price tag of congestion.

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