by Ben Davis
The idea that the Great Recession is the sole reason for the recent decline in driving in the U.S. is one with fewer and fewer adherents these days. At last month’s meeting of the Transportation Research Board, for example, noted transportation researcher Steven Polzin presented a draft paper that summed up what seems to be the emerging consensus among serious analysts that “[the] recent softness in travel demand growth is not simply a reflection of a cyclical recession but rather reflective of socio-demographic, technology, and perhaps culture and value changes that are likely to continue to persist to some degree for the foreseeable future.”
So what do you do if you are a backer of massive investment in highways and are confronted with evidence suggesting a widespread shift in travel behaviors away from driving? Avoid grappling with the facts, and instead scrounge the small treasure trove of travel data for anything that will support your claim, which is what Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation recently did in a critique of our report Transportation in Transition. However – as I’ll demonstrate in a minute – even following Poole’s argument, the logical conclusion is to shift funding toward improving transportation options.
But to take a step back, the first thing to say about Poole’s critique is that he misses the point of what our report was trying to accomplish. There is already ample evidence of the change in transportation trends nationally – from falling or stagnating vehicle travel to declining driver licensing to increased use of transit and an explosion of bicycle use. Our report was intended to provide local data sufficient to allow people in cities across the country to figure out how those trends were shaping up in their necks of the woods.
What we found was that these changes in transportation behaviors are widespread across America – not universal, but widespread – and that they do not seem to vary much from city to city based on the severity with which the recession hit.
Poole wants you to focus on the fact that most of our comparisons span a range of years (usually 2005 to 2010 or 2006 to 2011*) that includes the Great Recession. There is a simple reason for that: those years represent the time period when many of the changes we are talking about fully manifested themselves. Everyone agrees that the recession likely had a significant impact on driving. But it is also true that the growth in driving was slowing down long before the recession began and that vehicle travel has not resumed rapid growth since it ended.
So, as Polzin and others are concluding, it is not just a temporary, cyclical economic downturn that is causing growth in driving to stagnate, which makes Poole’s approach– basing all comparisons on data for the full decade of the 2000s – inexplicable. Poole seems to believe that by simply adding another one-time, unrepeatable event to the mix – the credit-fueled exurban housing bubble of the early to mid-2000s – we’ll be all even steven in terms of divining the “true” trend in driving over the last decade.
I don’t think that’s a valid approach, but let’s follow his logic for a moment: between 2000 and 2012, total U.S. vehicle-miles traveled per person decreased by 2.9 percent. That pencils out to an average annual decline of 0.2 percent – a stark difference from the average annual increase of 1.9 percent over the period from 1980 to 2000.
A future of annual VMT declining by 0.2 percent per capita is one in which highway congestion (which has declined since 2007) is less of a national plague and more of a local issue that can be addressed largely through smart approaches to increasing the efficiency of our existing infrastructure (including investments in transit and active transportation). It is one in which massive expenditures on new highway capacity are both unnecessary to serve real transportation needs and likely to serve as a financial albatross to a transportation funding system that is already going broke. It is also one in which the money saved through reduced investment in highways can instead be put toward expanding transportation options – giving more Americans the freedom to do what many of them want to do already: drive less.
I’m sure that’s a future that doesn’t appeal to Poole or his colleagues at the highway-happy Reason Foundation. It is, however, a future that increasingly appeals to a growing number of Americans. And whether the end of the Driving Boom excites you or scares you, it is happening just the same. The sooner folks like Poole can get beyond quibbling over numbers and engaging in rhetorical gymnastics to acknowledge and confront the very real opportunities and challenges of the post-Driving Boom era, the better off we all will be.
*Poole also accuses us of “cherry picking” the data because we use varying date ranges for various data points in the report. As Poole surely knows, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go into discussions of transportation policy with the data you have, not the data you want. Our report drew from several sources, including the Census Bureau, the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, which don’t necessarily produce comparable data for the same date ranges. (Our struggles finding a comparable timespan within the FHWA’s data on vehicle travel by urbanized area could take up a very long blog post in and of themselves and, in a roundabout sort of way, already have.)