Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Future Isn't What It Used To Be

In order to properly plan for a sustainable future, we must resist the urge to rely on 100-year trends. It is the data collected in the last twenty or ten years that more accurately represents the shifting reality of housing preference, transportation efficiency, and energy cost/availability. These factors and more were analyzed last October by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute ( Litman's overarching theme, that 20th century transportation policy evolved due to a number of economic conditions that were favorable to automobile mobility, is inherently correct. Planning professionals need to recognize that these factors have either ceased to exist, or are highly unlikely to continue. They must understand why these things have occured or will occur in order to make the best recommendations for the deployment of future transportation resources. 

The United States was engaged in a national road-building fiesta from 1945 until sometime between 1980 and 1985. Relatively little additional roadway mileage has been added since, surprisingly. On the flipside, railroad mileage and transit service took a well known beating during this period, but the decline has indeed stopped and begun to reverse. Class I railroad mileage increased between 2000 and 2002, while rail transit track mileage increased a significant 40% from 1995-2002.

Perhaps more surprising, per-capita vehicle ownership reached its peak in 2000, long before the current protracted capital crisis, and declined slightly in the run-up to 2008. This is the first indicator of many that more than resource scarcity or economic contraction has begun to inform the habits of the average American in the 21st century. Not only per-capita vehicular miles travelled (VMT) began to decline at the outset of the 2000's, but the total national VMT figure and total national fuel consumption both peaked approximately in 2006 and now annual VMT lags the obviously unsustainable long-term trend by approximately 10%. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States as most developed nations saw their per-capita VMT stabilize or decline since 2000, albeit at a much lower absolute figure than the U.S.

What is driving these shifts that are seemingly divorced from economic consideration? Real estate market research, such as that previously profiled by Christopher Leinberger in his excellent work, The Option of Urbanism ( is painting a picture of increasing sentiment toward a lifestyle less complicated by the onus of automobile ownership. According to Litman, twenty years ago, only a third of households stated a preference for what he calls 'smart growth' (smaller lot, better travel options, local services, and commute distances). His sources project a doubling of this opinion within two decades. In addition, a demographic wave of individuals who exhibit waning interest in cars are becoming actors in the land use demand marketplace. Theorists posit that this generation, which sees the automobile simply as an accessory of their sterile upbringing, finds more utility and enjoyment in increasingly social communications accessories than in a prosthetic conveyance. Regardless of the possible reason, statistics state clearly that the driver's license as American ritual is fading from the zeitgeist. Just 31% of 16 year olds had driver's licenses in 2008 compared with 42% in 1994. While there have never been more teenagers in the history of the country, less than 10 million of those are licensed to drive. The peak in this regard was reached back in 1978 when over 12 million youngsters plied the streets. One could reasonably estimate that simply using licensed individuals as a metric actually overstates the number of drivers as one never becomes unlicensed based on lack of usage. Such individuals are not retested, but are likely to retain the state driver's license as their primary form of photo identification.

Litman embarks on an examination of travel and freight transport trends in greater detail before arriving at a conclusion that weighs the balance of nine disparate impacts on vehicle travel demand (Table 4, Pg. 31). The realm of demographics falls squarely on the side of significant reductions as U.S. Residents born after 1978 drive significantly less (20%) than people of the same age did 10 years earlier. There is also a substantial decrease in per-capita VMT by people over 55. Operating costs of the current arrangement provide for moderate to large reductions over the long term due to rising fuel prices (increased demand/peak production) and the potential for toll increases. This signifies another reversal from the 50-year trend beginning in 1950 of reduced variable vehicle costs.

New technologies, primarily the increasing prevalence of work-from-home arrangements, but also including improved public transit user information and interface, encourage some likely declines in vehicular use. A note of caution is necessary on this topic to avoid the temptation to apply techno-grandiose solutions such as Magnetic Levitation trains. Quoting Litman, “...even if Maglev technology is perfected, it is only suitable for medium-distance trips on heavy traffic corridors. It may increase long-distance commuting in a few areas but have little effect on other travel.” What is important to understand about high-tech solutions versus low-tech solutions is that regardless of the mode, the mode must spur transit oriented development at its nodes in order to change travel patterns, and that these changes will be more a result of the land-use policy than the technology itself. A reliable lower-technology mode that still fosters these ideals is always preferable due to its design resiliency.

Consumer preferences and environmental concerns round out the list of key contributors to decline of vehicle travel demand. These two areas stem from household economic goals, health concerns, energy conservation, and emission reduction programs. The most immediate way to address both is to move from an auto-dependent suburb to a multimodal neighborhood where per-capita mileage reductions of 20-40% can be realized.

The implications to those would attempt to shape the built environment and transportation infrastructure are clear. Anticipation of future needs is critically important as we have seen in the past that public policy decisions are self-fulfilling. When planners at the height of the automobile age attempted to combat congestion with increased capacity, the result was additional induced traffic. We are in a new reality compared to the extrapolated results of 100-year trends. The continued allocation of the lion's share of resources to the dominant mode is an unsustainable proposition from a maintenance standpoint. The way to address this will be to strive for a more balanced transportation system that respects the mandates of reality and reason more than the desire to continue operating 'business as usual.'

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