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John Petro

Reducing How Much We Drive Should be a National Transportation Goal

Last month, Senators John D. Rockefeller and Frank Lautenberg introduced a bill that would establish performance-based goals for our surface transportation system. The bill would, according to Senator Lautenberg, "establish a national policy that improves safety, reduces congestion, creates jobs, and protects our environment."

Among these goals is to reduce the amount Americans drive, or more specifically, to "reduce national per capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis." Basically, Americans should be driving less--fewer trips over shorter distances. This has as much to do with the way we use our land as it does with transportation policy. Where we choose to live and work and get the groceries largely determines how much we drive. We are driving longer distances to work and to complete all the other little errands that populate our days.

However, Gabriel Roth argues in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that reducing the amount we drive should not be a policy goal of the federal government.

Reducing the total miles traveled--whether the length or number of trips--means people would have to reduce the activities they want and need to do. People would be "coerced," in effect, to live in less desirable places or work in less desirable jobs; shop in fewer and closer stores; see their doctor less frequently; visit fewer family members and friends.

Roth's claim of coercion is absurd. Americans have already chosen to drive less. VMT per person leveled off some time around 2001 and began dropping around 2005. At the same time, public transit ridership has increased dramatically as cities build or expand rail systems and build higher-density, mixed-use developments.

Other claims, such as the assertion that reducing VMT will drive down economic growth, are equally absurd. Just look at driving trends. The reduction in VMT per capita began when the country was experiencing quite rapid economic growth.

On the other hand, there are many good reasons why we should, as a nation, be driving fewer trips over shorter distances. The first, as stated by Senator Lautenberg, is safety. Improved automobile safety has led to a steady decline in the number of auto-related fatalities per 1000 VMT. However, because we continued to drive more, the total number of fatalities stayed stubbornly constant from 1992-2005. They began to drop in 2005 when we started driving less. Still, an estimated 37,000 people died in 2008 in traffic-related incidents.

Second, by reducing VMT we will reduce congestion on our streets and highways. Nobody really wants to drive more than an hour to work, but the number of us doing so is increasing. Over five million workers traveled more than an hour to work in 2001 while only 3.4 million workers did so in 1995. Even short-distance commutes were taking longer--28 percent of hour-long commutes were less than twenty miles! This is due in part to under investment in transit in our metropolitan regions. Trains can move many more commuters during peak hours than highways. It is also due to the large number of non-commuting trips that take place during peak hours.

The shame is, most of these trips do not need to be made by automobile. Forty percent of our car trips are less than two miles. If we can make these trips by walking or biking instead, we are already reducing congestion. Unfortunately, most new communities are not built to encourage walking or biking. In order to do so, we need to incorporate complete streets principles into our new housing developments. Also, by adopting a transit-oriented development model, we can locate housing and retail uses closer together. Rapid transit stations would be surrounded by a half-mile area filled with higher-density housing, retail uses, and commercial uses. Those that live in this half-mile area would rarely need to use their car. Outside of the half-mile area, there would be single family homes. However, the central commercial district would still be within an easy walk or bicycle ride.

This form of development is not exactly revolutionary. Just see the wonderful towns of Montclair and South Orange, New Jersey. These older suburbs incorporate these very same principles with great success. Contrary to what people such as George Will and Joel Kotkin think, transit-oriented development and VMT reduction does not mean that everyone will be forced to live in apartment blocks. Actually, this model of development most resembles that of small-town America, in which a compact town center, with apartments over shops and other amenities, is surrounded by single family homes. Thirty percent of Americans say that they prefer to live in a small town environment.

Lastly, reducing VMT should be a national goal because of the great cost of maintaining our highway system. It is estimated that it will take $2.2 trillion to get our roadways into a state of good repair. At the same time, our Highway Trust Fund is running out of money. We will need about $20 billion to keep it afloat this year. If we can reduce VMT, we can reduce the wear and tear our roads bear every day. We can use our existing infrastructure much more effectively if we begin to make a concerted effort to reduce the amount of driving that we endure.

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Posted at 10:50 AM, Jul 07, 2009 in Urban Affairs
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