BLOG POST

Building for the Future

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My younger son loves to play street football. He’s very good at catching the ball and is a slippery open-field runner. As a quarterback, though, he’s had a hard time grasping the concept of “leading the receiver” – the idea that, when passing the ball to a receiver on the move, you have to throw it to where he will be when the ball arrives, not where he is standing now.

The “leading the receiver” principle also applies to any form of infrastructure planning – whether it be for transportation or the electric grid. The investments we make today must be based on what we believe conditions in society will be like 10, 20 or 50 years down the road, as well as value judgments of what kind of world we would like to create.

I write about this today to call attention to additional evidence – this time from Britain – of a decline in automobile travel, particularly among the young. We’ve written about how this trend has also manifested itself in the United States, and about the implication that, perhaps, there has been a generational shift in attitudes toward car ownership and driving that includes a greater desire for walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with good access to transit.

James Crabtree, writing in Britain’s Prospect magazine, notes that these shifts in consumer behavior have big implications for how government officials plan the transportation system of the future. He writes:

The government’s “national transport model” predicts that car use in Britain will rise, pretty much forever. Other models show an “s” pattern, with growth followed by saturation. But even the hint of a dip in car use would be hugely significant, with implications for policies ranging from long-term investment in railways to global carbon reduction targets.

The same inability of government officials to grasp emerging trends exists in the United States. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released the 2011 version of the government’s official energy projections: the Annual Energy Outlook. In it, the EIA projects that the number of vehicle-miles traveled in light-duty cars will increase by an average of 1.6 percent per year between now and 2035, and that the number of miles driven per driver will increase by an average of 0.6 percent annually. These projections fly in the face of recent trends: the number of total vehicle-miles traveled on American roads has actually declined since 2007 and per-capita vehicle travel plateaued around 2000. 

Needless to say, highway investments that appear to make sense at a time of rapid growth in driving make little sense when that growth fails to materialize. They make even less sense when one considers the potential for continued constraints on global oil supplies and the prospect of higher prices in the years to come.

A similar dynamic was partially responsible for the financial catastrophe that was the nuclear power industry in the 1970s and 1980s, when projections for continued skyrocketing demand for electricity failed to materialize, leaving the nation’s utilities stuck with a series of extremely expensive, unpopular, and unnecessary white elephants.

The main lesson here is that, as any mutual fund prospectus says, “past performance does not guarantee future results.” The fact that most people drive today is not, as the highway lobby likes to believe, a valid argument for investing most of our money in more highways for the future. Indeed, every indicator – including the behavior of young drivers, the rise in oil prices, and the warming of the planet – suggests that spending more money on ever-wider highways is a foolish bet. 

If my 10-year-old son continues to follow the same growth curve he has followed since he was born, he will be nearly 10 feet tall by the time he is 18 years old, and more than 20 feet tall by the time he hits 30. Thankfully, I know better than to expect that. Predicting the future by drawing a straight line extrapolating past results isn’t good enough when billions of transportation dollars - and our nation's energy future - are at stake. We may not know everything about the recent changes in trends regarding driving and car ownership, but we know more than enough to question the traditional assumptions that govern the planning of our transportation system.