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Posts from the "VMT" Category

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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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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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With Less Driving, Can We Tone Down the Hysteria About Congestion?

TTI may try to paint a picture of ever-worsening congestion, but their own data show that reduced VMT is having a positive impact. Image: TTI

There’s so much to unpack in the landmark report released by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group earlier this week on transportation trends. Tuesday, we focused on the disparity between government transportation forecasts and recent realities. We also took a look at a few reasons to believe that the millennial generation – those aged 13 to 30 right now — will continue to drive less than previous generations. One of those reasons is that technology has reduced our need to drive in many different ways.

The report also makes clear the need to recalibrate our strategies around congestion. When roads get congested, calls for highway expansion grow to a deafening pitch. The reality that transit and road pricing are better solutions for congestion don’t compute amid the panic.

The most recent Texas Transportation Institute congestion report came out under the headline, “As Traffic Jams Worsen, Commuters Allowing Extra Time for Urgent Trips.” Lots of doom-and-gloom language when what they really mean is that congestion is easing.

That’s right. Reduced congestion has been one of many benefits of the reduction in miles driven over the past eight years. As of 2011 – the latest year for which data is available – congestion was about as light as it was in 1998. And it had been down at that level for four years. The annual toll on car commuters went from 43.1 hours of delay to 42 hours in 2007 and then dipped way down to 37.6 – and stayed there for the next three years. In 2011 it inched up by less than half an hour to 38.0 [PDF].

So where is all this “urgency” about “worsening” congestion coming from?

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Millennials Will Drive More As They Age, But Still Less Than Their Parents

At some point over the past few years, a lot of my friends started moving to Silver Spring and Takoma Park and Falls Church. These inner-ring, transit-connected suburbs of DC are still far less compact and walkable than the neighborhoods my friends moved from. So they bought cars.

Many young people opt for urban living in walkable, compact neighborhoods -- even once they have kids. Photo: Let's Save Michigan

Why did they do this? They’re entering peak driving age, which is historically between 35 and 54. They have more money than they did in their early 20s. But mostly, they had kids. Of all my friends, I now have exactly one that is still proudly car-free with kids.

In light of the new U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group report on changing driving habits, led by young people, the question arises: Won’t those young people also drive more as they get older?

Reports of diminished interest in driving focus on two groups: baby boomers, the generation that came of age with the automobile and settled in car-dependent suburbs, who are now retiring and driving less; and millennials, the oldest of whom are in their early thirties now and the youngest of whom aren’t even old enough to drive.

Millennials’ shift away from automobile travel is well documented, especially in last year’s report, “Transportation and the New Generation,” by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group. That report found that between 2001 and 2009, annual driving by the 16-to-34 age cohort decreased 23 percent, from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita. The same age group also made 24 percent more trips by bike and 40 percent more trips by public transit.

With more people having children later in life, the vast majority of millennials are still childless. They also haven’t hit their prime earning years, which tend to be prime driving years.

That’s true, said U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall, co-author of the new report on driving trends, but the expected increase in driving by millennials had already been factored into the reports forecasts — all of which entail far less driving than government models predict. “Our scenarios all assume that millenials will drive more when they get older,” Baxandall told Streetsblog. “The real question isn’t, ‘Will millennials drive more as they get older?’ It’s, ‘Will they drive more than their parents as they get older?’”

There are persuasive reasons to think they won’t.
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U.S. PIRG: The Driving Boom Is Over But the Road-Building Binge Continues

All government forecasts predict far more driving than even the most conservative scenario envisioned by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group. Image: A New Direction

The driving boom is over.

After decades of steady growth, U.S. driving rates have stagnated and even fallen. Per capita driving is as low as it was in 1996. And yet, federal and state government estimates continue to predict inexorable growth, relentlessly building expensive new highways for drivers who might not materialize.

A groundbreaking new study from U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group shows that any of three likely scenarios for future U.S. driving trends show far lower vehicle miles traveled than any of the principal current government estimates. That creates a disconnect between the kinds of transportation Americans are choosing with their feet and the kinds of transportation the system is designing for them.

Transit ridership is rising steadily – Americans took 10 percent more transit trips in 2011 than in 2005 – yet more than half of U.S. transit systems have been forced by budget constraints to either raise fares or cut service – or both – since the beginning of 2010. Meanwhile, although Americans are showing a flagging interest in automobile travel, states are breaking the bank to build shiny new roads.

Here are the three possible future scenarios for driving behavior that authors Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG and Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group laid out:

Back to the Future: This scenario assumes that the decline in driving is a temporary “blip,” largely due to the economic recession, and not a lasting trend. It assumes driving rates will soon pick right up where they left off. In this scenario, driving rates by age cohort and sex return to 2004 levels by 2020 and continue marching upward.

Enduring Shift: Under this scenario, the last decade’s shift in driving behaviors is real and lasting, with people continuing to embrace different forms of transportation and more compact communities. Gas prices stay high, the economy bounces back without leading to a huge jump in VMT, and the digitally-connected world continues to reduce the need for travel. This assumes each age and sex cohort keeps driving at lower rates than the same cohort did in previous generations. “For example, if 20 year-old males in 2009 drove 20 percent less than 20 year-old males did in 2001, it is assumed that eleven years later in 2020 they will similarly drive 20 percent less than 31-year-old males did in 2001,” Baxandall and Dutzik write.

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How Green Is Grocery Delivery in Cities?

Grocery delivery can cut carbon emissions compared to driving your car to the store and back. But delivery services also replace walking, biking, and transit trips. Image: Transportation Research Forum

In a recent study out of Seattle, researchers Erica Wygonik and Anne Goodchild found that having groceries delivered by truck can cut mileage by up to 85 or 95 percent compared to driving a car. ”It’s like a bus for groceries,” Goodchild told NPR. ”Overwhelmingly, it’s more efficient to be sharing a vehicle, even if it’s a little larger.”

The most efficiency can be squeezed out of grocery delivery when dispatchers can design short routes that serve many people. When customers can choose their delivery times, however, the routes become significantly less efficient.

But in urban areas, where houses are close enough together that delivery might be relatively efficient, not everyone drives to the store. And people without access to a car might be the most likely to use a delivery service. In these locations, perhaps delivery services are replacing walking, biking, and transit trips more than driving trips.

It looks like more research is needed to evaluate the full impact of grocery delivery services on travel choices and carbon emissions. “We don’t have great data about how people get to the store,” Goodchild said in an email exchange. “We also don’t know to what extent these shoppers (bike/ped) might choose to shop online, versus those who drive to the store.”

She said she and her co-author have talked about conducting simulations where they consider biking “but would need to estimate calorie burn.” Yes, calorie burn — but hopefully not “increased respiration.”