Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thinking About Transportation After the “Driving Boom” is Over

A recently published report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” provides plenty of food for thought about how transportation agencies will need to respond to the changing driving and travel habits of Americans. 
Even if you don’t normally pay much attention to reports published by advocacy groups (this one is by U.S. PIRG), you should read this one, which is a very fair, clear, and well-documented review of the issues (the report is available here).  Although some of these issues (for instance, the changing driving habits of Millenials) are well known, I haven’t seen a better overall introduction to these topics and to the challenges they pose for transportation professionals.
The report got a good story in the New York Times (here), which pointed to some anecdotal evidence supporting its conclusions (but didn’t get very far into the implications).
The gist of the report is the proposition that the “Driving Boom” of the late 20th century is over and isn’t coming back, at least not in the once predictable patterns.  The new patterns are a result of a variety of economic, demographic, and social changes: workforce participation is dropping, Millenials often want to live in urban neighborhoods and avoid driving, gasoline prices have increased, and so on.  And of course there is the current economic slump.  What we don’t know is how much VMT will rebound when the economy ultimately recovers.  The authors address this issue head-on and suggest that even if many of the previous driving patterns return (what they call the “Back to the Future” scenario) a lot of the traffic forecasts that our transportation plans are based on are obsolete.
What are some of the implications of these changes?  Most of them are pretty obvious: big highway expansion projects should be revisited (not all state DOTs, however, see this).   Also, transportation trust funds need to be fixed.  Some implications have not been talked about so much: public/private partnerships, many people’s favorite way of avoiding talking about gas tax increases, may not look so good given uncertain traffic projections (and therefore uncertain toll revenue). 
The authors’ first policy recommendation – “Plan (and invest) for uncertainty” – sounds like a common-sense approach, but is in fact fraught with difficulty.  Transportation plans, project designs, and environmental assessments have all typically assumed a sure vision into the future, in large part to fend off opposition.  To some extent this problem can be offset by the next policy recommendation – “Support the desire of Millenials and other Americans to drive less” – which in effect argues for providing a wide range of transportation options.
“A New Direction” is a first-rate introduction to this set of issues – issues that have huge implications for our transportation (and societal) future.
Good job U.S. PIRG!

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