Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Questioning Old Assumptions

In an op-ed piece in today's Fauquier Times-Democrat, John J. "Butch" Davies III, has expressed the conventional wisdom regarding the inevitability of continued traffic increases. "We are using vehicles much more extensively now," he writes. "The U.S. population increased by about 25 percent between 1980 and 2000, but the vehicle miles of travel increased 80 percent. There is no indication that automobile use will decline in coming generations -- even considering the increased cost of gasoline." (My italics.)

It matters what Davies thinks. As the Culpeper District representative to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, he is in a position to convert opinions into policy. Unfortunately, he, like many others, is guilty of assuming that the way to discern the future is to project the past. Because Vehicle Miles Traveled increased 80 percent over the past 20 years, VMT will increase 80 percent over the next 20 years. That's why Virginia faces a transportation crisis and (though Davies did not explicitly say so in his column) that's why the state needs to raise billions of dollars a year to finance a raft of road and transit construction projects.

There are many reasons to question Davies' core assumption--as the "Road to Ruin" project will enumerate in future articles and editorials--but I will point to three:
  • The 20-More-Years-of-the-Same scenario assumes, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that there will be no change in the scattered, disconnected, low-density development that has prevailed over the last 20 years. In point of fact, New Urbanisn-inspired development, which generates fewer and shorter trips than conventional development, is all the rage in Virginia. When properly located and designed, these developments can absorb traffic from congested thoroughfares. Bob Burke's article about the Albemarle Place project on U.S. 29 is illuminating.
  • The 20-More-Years-of-the-Same scenario also assumes, despite evidence to the contrary, that rush hour commuting patterns will continue much as they have--millions of workers crowding the same roads, driving to the same employment clusters, at the same time of day. In point of fact, major employers are rapidly rethinking the relationship between the worker and the workplace. The rise of the "mobile workforce" means that an increasing number of Knowledge Workers have the latitude to work away from the office (often at home), or to drive into the office after rush hour. I have explored this trend in my column, "Rush Hour Will Never Be the Same."
  • Contrary to Davies' assertion, higher gas prices do impact driver behavior. During the 1970s energy crisis, Virginians did drive less. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Vehicle Miles Driven declined from 12,000 miles in 1973 per motorist to 10,000 in 1981.

Stay tuned. Burke will be reporting on innovative redevelopment projects in suburban areas that can make a big impact on traffic congestion. And I'll be delving deeper into the straight-line traffic projection underpinning the argument for tax increases.


At 7:27 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

We are using autos and trucks more extensively now; women in the workplace, just in time deliveries, greater variety in the groceries, and many other factors contribute to this. But many of them are one time events, so there is no reason to conclude that we will see VMT increases in future years as we have seen in the past, and higher fuel prices will cause us to consider whethter a particular trip is really necessary.

Even if that is true, Virginia faces a continuing transportation crisis because it failed to react to the changes noted above. We have not spent nearly enough to account for population changes, let alone new economic forces. In that regard we are no different from other communities noted in the Texas Transportation Study.

Even is new urbanism results in fewer and shorter trips, no one has shown that this will result in reduced congestion or expense. We have three prosposed developments where such therories could be put to the test. One of the core features of the Texas studies is that they admit that there is no where near enough data to accurately assess the problems we have.

At the same time Jim Bacon's article points out that 37% of workers are mobile, and I suggest the number may be even higher. That means more people will be going more places throughout the day. While that may reduce the periodic or rush hour congestion, what we will see is more of the situation on Route 66 between the beltway and route 50 - jammed both directions, even on weekends.

Mobile workers, new urbanism, or not we will always have a transportation problem if we don't at least catch up on the dozens of roads we didn't build to accomodate the changes that have already occurred. Thes changes will be with us for the foreseeable future, whether we have any more increases or not.

Higher gas prices may well be the impetus that pushes people to choose more urban living styles, but it is wrong to assume that will result in solving our transportation problem.

At 4:28 AM, Blogger C. P. Zilliacus said...

Jim Bacon wrote:

> Stay tuned. Burke will be reporting
> on innovative redevelopment projects
> in suburban areas that can make a
> big impact on traffic
> congestion. And I'll be
> delving deeper into
> the straight-line traffic
> projection underpinning the
> argument for tax increases.

Jim, I am a resident of Montgomery County, Maryland (across the Potomac River from Fairfax County), a suburban county that has made many attempts, dating back to the 1970's, to reduce highway traffic congestion through an assortment of land use changes - and please consider that (in part) because Maryland is not a Dillon Rule state, counties on this side of the creek have much more authority to regulate land use and development, when compared to Virginia's local governments.

None of those land use changes have had much favorable impact, and traffic has only worsened over the years - in particular, the eastern part of the county (along U.S. 29 - yes, the very same highway that crosses Virginia) had a plan based on a "concept of transit serviceability" that was approved by our County Council in 1981 - this plan was a dismal failure, and was effectively cancelled by the same County Council in 1997.

I don't like to use the word never, but let's just say that I am deeply skeptical that land use changes will make a substantive difference in traffic congestion and growth of traffic volumes.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Thank you C. P. That is the argument I have been waging here for months.

1. We don't have any instances for which planning can be shown to have reduced traffic.

2. We don't have adequate ways of measuring either traffic congestion or the physical/social/economic features which govern it. Even if there is an instance in which planning reduced traffic, we couldn't prove it. This is a key argument of the Urban transportation study.

3. Planning and rebuilding our entire infrastructure in favor of some dogmatic and unproven idea is the slowest and most expensive way to solve our problems - if it works.

4. If it works, not only will it take a long time, but the results will be marginal because we already know that 40% or more of workers don't work in a single location, but many locations, and not all will avail themselves of New Urbanisms charms. At best we are looking a few percent reduction in the projected increases.

5. Davis never said that VMT is expected to increase over the next 20 years as it has in the past. The increases will be substantial, but some of the increases we have seen are basically one time events.

6. If New Urban areas are expected to absorb traffic from congested areas, then they will necessarily become congested.

7. There is nothing wrong with New Urbanism. If someone wants to build and thinks he can sell a project he should be allowed to: preferably without special incentives unless approved by a populace willing to raise taxes to provide them, and specifically without penalizing people who choose to live elsewhere.

8. I can't think of a better way to kill New Urbanism and/or rural conservation than by making unfounded/unproven claims it is the cure all for everything from ppllution to congestion to homelessness.


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