Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

New PIRG-Frontier Group report on continued decline in motor vehicle travel in Top 100 urbanized areas

Today, US PIRG and the Frontier Group released the report, Transportation in Transition:A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities, which finds that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the nation's 100 largest urbanized areas (an urbanized area is a spatial subset of a metropolitan area, focused in large part on the center city and adjacent areas).

VMT began declining before the recession, and has remained in decline as the economy has improved.  They present data which supports their argument that this is not related to economic or income decline, but the result of structural changes in the economy, behavior, and attitudes.

This is the result of a variety of reasons, ranging from the cost of gas to increased working at home, increased use of transit and other modes, and a decline in car ownership, as well as attitude changes amongst certain segments of the population. 

This report follows others by the organizations (such as A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future), which have been recommending consistently that local and national transportation policies ought to change in response to changing realities.

Report Recommendations
  • Revisit transportation plans. Most transportation plans are based on decades-old recommendations and tend to focus on roadway expansion.  Plans should be re-visioned and more accepting of a new mobility paradigm.
  • Reallocate resources to support other transportation modes.  The report starts out with a description of Madison, Wisconsin, and how after their decision to not allow freeways within the city, they invested in developing different forms of transportation infrastructure, including biking and transit, and the use of those modes has increased.
  • Remove barriers to non-driving options.  Planning and zoning requirements typically preference automobility.  Although changing these requirements in the face of an automobility dominant planning paradigm and resident beliefs is very difficult.  (Here, I think the report could have been stronger in discussing land use and how urban form shapes mobility choices.)
  • Enable innovative travel tools and services
  • Get better data and make it available.  1/4 of the jurisdictions covered in the report could not provide comparable data, because of antiquated collection methods and/or low priority for data collection.  Note that I think this is an excellent point.  Part of the acrimony in DC over proposed changes to parking provision in new construction has to do with failures of the city planning agencies to collect and present actionable data on parking inventory and how mobility use varies by housing type and proximity to transit.
My reactions

1.  Yes, Transportation Departments have to change.  How we do that in the context of road-dominated paradigms is a challenge.  I am working on what I call my unified theory on how to change transportation planning so that it focuses on achieving high quality mobility and placemaking and quality of life outcomes simultaneously.  But the challenge then is to get transportation agencies to take up the concept.

I thought there was opportunity in one of the states in the area, but now I am not so sure.  And it's not even clear that DC, a fully urbanized "state", even has a sustainability first transportation agenda.  Despite the claims of the DC Sustainability Plan, as Dr. Gridlock in the Washington Post recently pointed out, DDOT's biggest projects are motor vehicle related.

2.  Land use and transportation planning needs to be integrated,  Mostly it isn't.  Probably my most succinct writing about why an integrated planning paradigm is necessary was presented in this 2006 entry, "Comments on Proposed EYA Development at Takoma Metro Station."

3.  Metropolitan Planning Organizations, the agencies tasked by federal law to do transportation planning at the metropolitan scale, for the most part aren't visionary, and don't challenge automobile-centric planning.  There are exceptions, such as MPOs in Minneapolis, the Philadelphia region, Portland, Greater Seattle, and others. (The MPOs serving the DC and Baltimore areas are not exceptional supporters or promoters of sustainable mobility.)

4.  Can scenario planning help to change people's sense of responsibility for the deleterious impact of status quo transportation and land use policies?

Notions Capital shares with us a very interesting article from Public Roads, the publication of the Federal Highway Administration, on scenario planning by the MPO in Southwestern Pennsylvania ("Predicting the Future"). 

Right: scenarios used in planning by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission MPO.

Mostly people are happy with the status quo and work diligently to maintain it.  Scenarios presented in the FHWA publication Integrating Land Use Issues into Transportation Planning: Scenario Planning make it easier to see the consequences of "staying the course," about which most people seem to be either unconscious or uncaring.

The question is, if the results of the different scenarios presented, and the consequences assessed, will people take responsibility and support changes in policy and practice?

From the Public Roads article:
By using scenario planning software, SPC presented approximately 40 variables as performance indicators for each of the chosen scenarios and showed how those variables would differ depending on the scenario. Working with all 40 variables could become confusing, so the facilitators again gave the partners in the planning process the opportunity to choose which variables were most important to them. The participants selected the following six variables:
  • Density of development
  • Amount of land developed
  • Households close to highway interchanges
  • Households close to transit stops
  • Regional travel as depicted by regional daily vehicle miles traveled
  • Cost for basic infrastructure
 At least with such scenarios, the consequences of staying the course are measurable.  Although the problem with scenario planning is that it is only as good as the scope that the agency outlines--for example in my opinion, the scenarios used in the current DC transportation planning process MoveDC aren't very challenging at all, and don't provide much of an impetus for motor vehicle proponents to consider rethinking their perspectives.

5.  Transportation Demand Management needs to be integrated purposefully with sustainable mobility services.  Typically, such programs are not well integrated into transit service specifically.  As a result, it takes many years, if ever, to fully reap the benefits of the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars invested in such systems.  This needs to change.  (More on this later in the week.)

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At 7:09 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

As I keep saying, the PIRG reports are pretty dishonest. VMT has been a proxy for economic activity, and the fact that is a down is a sign that despite the boom times most of the county isn't doing well. Immigration is way down, mexicans don't want to drive and get deported, and familes aren't being formed.

I got 3 letters from banks offering me 7 and 10 years car loans last week. amazing.

One thing I think the PIRG/Car-free types do a good job is painting the idea of car-free as some sort of utopia. It isn't. Ridiing transit can be a pain. Then again, driving can be a pain. The job needs to be making transport less of pain and more of a better experience.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

What I find interesting about their reports is their point that transportation plans and priorities need to change to reflect this new reality.

I understand your point about VMT as a proxy for economic activity. I agree. But what is interesting is that the research shows that VMT started dropping on a per capita basis before the recession.

I do think that some of the results reported, e.g., Harrisburg being one of the areas with a large drop in VMT, are specifically economically related.

But some not.

The other issue is long term gasoline prices. While supplies are going to increase, likely increase in worldwide demand means that prices aren't likely to drop significantly below $3/gallon.

That could have long term implications on people's decisions about residential location and mobility choice.

And yes, riding transit can really suck, because after trips of 5-7 miles, it takes a long long long time, which isn't fun.

I intend to write a piece on an element of this point, probably not til over the weekend.

At 9:18 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Employment still isn't back to 2007 levels, and that isn't including population growth since then.

Gas prices; it is as much about the velocity of increase as the price. I tend to agree they will be in the $4 range. In the $10 range (in the UK) average VMT is about 10K miles a year. Of course car ownership is more expensive and much smaller percentagewise.

The problem is we use VMT as a way to meaure investment in new roads, when in reality it could be spent better. I don't know anyone who thinks we should be cutting road spending because of the VMT drop.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't think the point is to not spend money on roads--I agree that just maintaining the system we have costs more than we are spending and allocating, let alone retrofitting biking, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure as needed--more about road expansion planning, how old plans with new roads are still the priority.

And that we should also be better funding sustainable modes, and promoting a better balance of building regulations so that motor vehicles aren't unduly preferenced.

Again, I agree with you about the point of VMT and job numbers not having achieved pre-recession highs. We've discussed this too about car purchasing and the millennials. How much of the decline is economic, how much is the result of attitude and lifestyle changes? I think it's a bit more the former than the latter...


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