Thursday, December 5, 2013

New U. S. PIRG Report Highlights Big Changes in Transportation Patterns in Urbanized Areas

U. S. PIRG has issued another report in their series highlighting and documenting the big changes in travel patterns happening in this country.  Their previous reports this year – “Moving off the Road” and “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future” (my comments and links here and here) pretty persuasively argued that the changes we are seeing in travel – especially falling VMT – are not just a product of the current economic slump but are serious, long-term changes that we as a nation have not yet come to terms with.
The new report, “Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities” (available here), pushes the analysis down to the level of urbanized areas, using data from the Census, FHWA, and FTA.
The results are striking:
·      54 of 74 urbanized areas showed a drop in VMT per capita from 2006 to 2011
·      47 of 74 showed a drop in total VMT
·      60 of 98 urbanized areas showed an increase in transit passenger miles traveled per capita from 2005 to 2010
·      67 of 98 showed an increase in total passenger miles traveled
The report tracks similar findings for numbers (and shares) of workers who commute by car to work, who bike to work, and who work from home.
The authors also put some more holes in the theory that the economic slump is the main cause of these changes.  They matched up various indicators of economic distress (increase in unemployment rate, increase in poverty level, etc.) with indicators of change in travel patterns and found a negative correlation.  In other words, those urbanized areas that have weathered the economic crisis relatively well have tended to show more change in travel patterns (drop in per capita VMT, increase in transit, etc.) than their less successful cousins.
The real fun (I know, this probably falls into the “get a life” category) is in diving into the tables at the back of the report, which list scores for all the urbanized areas analyzed.  (Not all urbanized areas are scored in all categories due to problems with availability and comparability of data.)  Perhaps not surprisingly, these data show all kinds of local divergences and anomalies, perhaps explainable by differences in economies, demographics, transit policies, etc. 
Just a few nuggets gleaned from a quick look through the tables:
·      In Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster all rank highly in the metric of decline in per capita VMT (4th, 5th, and 11th).  However, while Harrisburg also ranks high in increase of transit passenger miles per capita (5th), Pittsburgh and Lancaster rank poorly, showing actual declines in that number.
·      In Massachusetts, Boston doesn’t rank highly in either VMT decrease or transit increase, but ranks 7th in the nation in increased bike commuting (Hubway effect?).
·      In New York, Poughkeepsie-Newburgh scores near the top nationally in VMT decline (6th) and increase in working at home (6th), but near the bottom (83rd) in increase in transit passenger miles per capita, with an actual decline in that category.
·      In Wisconsin, both Milwaukee and Madison are near the top in VMT decline (2nd and 3rd) and also in increased bike commuting (19th and 2nd).  The example of Madison, which already is a very bike friendly city, suggests that we are nowhere near saturation levels for bike commuting anywhere.
·      The Washington DC urbanized area (including significant populations in Maryland and Virginia) scores at middling levels on most of the indicators, but ranks 14th in increased bike commuting share (Capital Bikeshare?).
The report concludes with stating five policy recommendations suggested by the results of the analysis:
1.     Revisit transportation plans,
2.     Reallocate resources,
3.     Remove barriers to expanded transportation options,
4.     Use innovative travel tools and service, and
5.     Get better data.

Congratulations to Phineas Baxandall and company at U. S. PIRG for putting together a compelling report that should be required reading at state DOTs, MPOs, and planning firms!

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