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A Midterm Lay of the Land: Transportation

The 2018 election is now behind us, with a new Congress, new governors and new state legislators about to grapple with America’s biggest challenges.

Every two years, Frontier Group analysts take a step back to review the “lay of the land” on their issue areas. This is the sixth in a series of posts over the next several weeks reviewing the threats and opportunities facing the American people, our communities, and our environment.

One morning in September 2017, residents of Santa Monica, CA awoke to find electric scooters scattered on sidewalks all over town. In the year since, scooters have spread to cities across the country, from Denver to Raleigh, and Washington, D.C., to San Diego.

A new evolution of the kid’s toy of the ‘90s, the scooters are small, lightweight and use little energy, all the while offering residents a new transportation option, accessible with the click of a button on an app.

Almost as quickly as they appeared, cities responded by banning scooters, often rounding up and confiscating the mini vehicles.

The battle over scooters is indicative in many ways of the world of transportation in 2018, where new technologies emerge overnight and spread across the country within months. It is a world in which companies and cities are scrambling to realize a different vision of transportation – one less reliant on personal vehicles – a process that has been more than a little messy.

The rapid emergence of scooters and dockless bikes in dozens of cities underscored a latent desire for more options. Within one year of launching, the scooter companies Bird and Lime collectively provided more than 21 million rides in more than 100 cities globally.

Americans, particularly young people, continue to tell pollsters they’d rather not drive – with more than half of millennials (people aged 22 to 37) reporting that owning a car is not worth the cost and they’d rather spend their time doing something besides driving.

The quest for innovation has yielded its share of harebrained proposals as well, like ripping up the New York City subway in favor of fleets of autonomous vehicles, whisking people underground on electric “skates” going 150 miles per hour, or building systems with magnetic capsules that travel 750 miles per hour through sealed tubes. It is sometimes difficult to see which innovations are true opportunities for positive transformation and which are distractions.

But there is another side to transportation in 2018 – one in which change happens slowly, when it happens at all. When it comes to public policy and infrastructure investment decisions, America largely continues to make the same decisions as generations ago. Street infrastructure in many cities remains dangerous for people on foot on bikes and on small electric vehicles – so much so that the scooter companies have even offered to pay to build dedicated lanes to protect riders from cars.

At all levels of government, we continue spending billions of dollars to expand our road and highway system. As we covered in our fourth annual Highway Boondoggles report released in 2018, the country spent more than $27.2 billion in 2012 (the most recent year for which data is available) to expand highways. Without adequate funding for transportation (and amid a $90 billion backlog in transit needs), states increasingly go into debt to funding highway expansion.

Despite all the expense on more and bigger roads, congestion plagues our commutes and our cities. A November 2018 study found that the average American spends far more time in their car each year (mostly commuting) than they receive in vacation days. That’s a whopping eight 40-hour work weeks spent driving.

Not only are Americans trapped physically in their cars, they’re also trapped in a cycle of debt paying for them. As our policy analyst Rachel J. Cross highlighted, Americans owe a jaw-dropping $1.2 trillion in outstanding auto debt, an all-time high, with average car ownership costing nearly $8,500 annually.

More than 37,000 Americans are still killed in car crashes every year – similar to how many people are killed by guns. Transportation remains Climate Enemy #1, responsible for more climate-warming pollution than any other sector in the country, and more than the entire economy of most nations.

But recent years have offered many reasons for hope. On a whole, we have more opportunities than ever before for safe, affordable, and sustainable mobility, and the pace of new developments indicates the potential for rapid transformation.

For instance, a blip on the radar just a couple years ago, electric buses are poised to take over the bus market, with some of America’s largest transit agencies, including L.A. County, New York City, Seattle and others committing to switch to zero emission buses.

Growth of electric vehicles is also accelerating. Sales of electric cars surged by 24 percent in 2017, and were up 35 percent in the first quarter of 2018, with new, more affordable models being introduced as well.

At the state and local level, taxpayers are demanding more options – and voting to pay for them. Voters in Tampa approved a new sales tax, 57 to 43 percent, to maintain roads and bridges, expand and improve public transportation, and make safety improvements for people walking and biking. In the tech hub of Mountain View, CA, nearly 70 percent of voters approved a tax on large companies (like Google), with 80 percent of the estimated $6 million generated annually going to transportation projects like biking and walking infrastructure and the local free shuttle service. Californians also opted to keep the 12-cent gas tax increase approved by the legislature last year, which provides about $760 million for transit projects.

At the national level, there might be room for progress as well.

As the Democrats prepare to take majority control of the House of Representatives in January, green infrastructure has dominated the conversation in both the House and the Senate. It is unclear whether these proposals will prioritize truly sustainable transportation investment, and it is very unlikely that they will pass. But the fact that policymakers are beginning to connect infrastructure decisions with our urgent need to act on climate change is a welcome development.

Historically, progressives and environmentalists haven’t fully embraced the need for deep change in our transportation system. A more sustainable, functioning system will require a profound shift in priorities and reallocation of resources.

The dialogue in 2018 has revealed that there is eagerness among Americans to rethink how we get around. Building consensus on an alternative vision will be challenging, but as 2019 dawns, there is reason to hope that we may finally be ready to begin the conversation.