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New Report: Road Overkill

Last week, our new report, A New Direction, made the case for why recent stagnation in the number of miles that Americans drive is likely to continue for a long time … and for why the United States needs to engage in a fundamental rethink of our transportation policy to adapt to that reality. The report sparked welcome discussion and debate in the media and among the transportation cognoscenti.

But what, you may ask, does all this mean to me in my community, or city, or state?

Today, we’re out with a new report that tries to answer that question in one state: Wisconsin. Road Overkill looks at the experience of seven recently built Wisconsin highways.  It finds that, in each case, traffic is failing to materialize on those roads to the degree transportation planners projected a decade or more ago.

The implications are significant: if traffic is growing at a slower rate than was projected a decade ago, then Wisconsin really needs to take an urgent second look at highway projects that are on the drawing board right now to make sure they are still necessary. It also means that the state should revisit the recent transportation decisions made by Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature – increasing spending on highway “megaprojects,” cutting transit funding, and reducing the amount of money made available to local governments for road maintenance and repair.

One fascinating undercurrent in the reaction to the New Direction report, and all our previous work on this topic, has been the steady sureness of at least some in the transportation field that this will all simply blow over. The Driving Boom of the 1940s through the early 2000s, they believe, hasn’t ended, it’s only sleeping.

Reports like Road Overkill show, in a vivid way, that the trend toward reduced driving exists not just in the aggregate statistics of vehicle-miles traveled, but also on the roads we travel every day. Meanwhile, each day’s news confirms that the trends we identified in A New Direction are continuing. This morning, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing that central cities added population faster than suburbs and exurbs in 2012, and to an even greater degree than they did in 2011, the year that the United States broke a 90(!) year trend of increasing suburbanization. In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported earlier this week that driving in March 2013 fell 1.5 percent compared to a year earlier, continuing the trend toward reduced driving.

Here’s hoping that reports like Road Overkill will help local, state and federal officials move beyond the question of whether the recent change in driving trends is real to address the question of what, exactly, we should do about it.