Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's time for a new direction - will DelDOT lead the way?

FHWA recently released its monthly travel-volume trend summary. The first quarter of 2013 showed aggregate national VMT down .8% and per-capita VMT down 1.5% relative to the same quarter of 2012.

The summary is just the latest evidence that Americans are driving less than they were a decade ago, and factoring in population growth, total VMT is flat or even declining. We have never seen such a serious drop, from the dawn of the auto age through the early 2000s. So are we in a period of temporary flux that will ultimately pass, or has something really changed? I happen to think the latter, though this will surely face ad challenges from the auto industry.

The signs are there that DelDOT is taking a more holistic approach to transportation planning and implementation. Much work remains, but we are slowly moving in the right direction. One thing advocates are always hoping for is that future projects for increased LOS (level of service) are revisited and carefully scrutinized. Are they really necessary, based on a projected demand that may not occur? If so, is there an opportunity to amend these plans with bicycle/pedestrian/transit facilities? Sometimes these projects are 10 or more years in the planning, and according to the latest driving trends, might be curtailed, more multi-modal, or eliminated altogether as transportation needs evolve.

A new report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group argues that the change is a durable one.

 Excerpts from the report:

"Revisit plans for new or expanded highways. Many highway projects currently awaiting funding were initially conceived of decades ago and proposed based on traffic projections made before the recent decline in driving. Local, state and federal governments should revisit the need for these “legacy projects” and ensure that proposals for new or expanded highways are still a priority in light of recent travel trends."

"Transportation policy in the United States, however, remains stuck in the past. Official forecasts of future vehicle travel continue to assume steady increases in driving, despite the experience of the past decade. Those forecasts are used to justify spending vast sums on new and expanded highways, even as existing roads and bridges are neglected. Elements of a more balanced transportation system - from transit systems to bike lanes - lack crucial investment as powerful interests battle to maintain their piece of a shrinking transportation funding pie."

"The time has come for America to hit the “reset” button on transportation policy - replacing the policy infrastructure of the Driving Boom years with a more efficient, flexible and nimble system that is better able to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century."

"Traffic congestion has fallen. According to data from the Texas Transportation Institute, Americans spent 421 million fewer hours stuck in traffic in 2011 than they did in 2005. Further reductions in driving could lead to additional easing of congestion without massive investments in new highway capacity, as long as roads are maintained in a state of good repair."

"Support the Millennials and other Americans in their desire to drive less. Federal, state and local policies should help create the conditions under which Americans can fulfill their desire to drive less. Increasing investments in public transportation, bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure and intercity rail - especially when coupled with regulatory changes to enable the development of walkable neighborhoods - can help provide more Americans with a broader range of transportation options."  [full report in pdf]

Statistics for Delaware through 2011. VMT has begun trending up a bit since the end of the Great Recession, however, this could change drastically as gas prices remain vulnerable to supply disruptions and the decline of easy oil.

The map below shows estimated Vehicle Miles Traveled by Region, as of March 2013, in Billions. In red is the change in traffic volume as compared to same month a year ago.The South Atlantic region, including Delaware, saw a 2.1% drop in aggregate VMT.

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