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Responding to Cox and Poole, Part 4: Where Do We Go from Here?

We’ve come at last to the end of our four-part response to the critiques of our May report on changing driving trends by demographer Wendell Cox and the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole. (Here are parts 1, 2 and 3.)

Naturally, our posts thus far have focused on the places where Poole and Cox disagree with our report. Is there anything on which we agree?

Quite a lot, actually. Cox and Poole both acknowledge that the rate of growth in per-capita vehicle travel has been slowing for decades (though they choose not to call attention to the fact that is has now gone negative). We also agree with them that economic factors have played a substantial role in at least  the more recent change of driving trends (though they choose not to acknowledge that some of those economic factors – including high gas prices and declining workforce participation – aren’t likely to change any time soon).

Yes, we do have different interpretations of the recent changes in transportation behaviors among young Americans and their implications for the future. But on many of the core substantive questions, there is not too much daylight between us.

Where we seem to differ most profoundly is in how we believe the public and decision-makers should react to this information. We believe that slowing demand for driving – and the likelihood that driving will grow at a far less vigorous pace than had been forecast just a few years ago – raises urgent public policy questions that the nation must address. What kinds of transportation infrastructure will we need for the future? How much of it will we need? How much will we need to spend to get it? Where will the money come from (especially if revenue from gasoline taxes continues to shrivel)? How must our current transportation policy framework – the basic parameters of which date from the days more than a half-century ago when the nation’s primary challenge was seen as how to build lots of new roads, quickly – change to meet these new demands? And what is our responsibility to serve the transportation demands of younger Americans, who will ultimately be the people to both use and pay for the investments we make today, and who are arriving at young adulthood with different values, different options, and different constraints than previous generations?

All of these questions and more are raised in A New Direction. And while we certainly don’t have the perfect answers to them, it’s clear that decision-makers can’t have a sensible debate about transportation policy in 2013 without the historical shift away from rapid growth in driving being at the center of the discussion.

Robert Poole acknowledges the centrality of this question to transportation policy, writing that “state DOTs, road builders, and companies signing long-term highway P3 concession deals all rely on forecasts of VMT. If those forecasts are seriously flawed, the implications for future traffic congestion, highway and bridge reconstruction needs, and toll revenues will all have to be rethought. And which party will bear traffic and revenue risk—taxpayers or investors—will be even more important if the risk of much lower VMT is very real.” He further acknowledges that our work has “done a service by raising challenges to conventional VMT forecasting.” Yet, in neither of his two posts on our report does Poole engage meaningfully with the implications of the slowing growth (really, decline) in per-capita vehicle travel that even he acknowledges to be a continuing reality.

Cox essentially argues that we must continue to spend heavily on highways, regardless of any change in demand for driving, a) because reducing travel time in metropolitan areas is really important, and b) there isn’t any real alternative. Public transportation, Cox argues, suffers from inherent problems (such as the “last mile” challenge) that render it incapable of serving a larger share of transportation needs in all but a few dense cities. The increasing use of other non-transit modes (such as walking and biking), the emergence of new transportation options (such as car-sharing and ride-sharing), advances in communications that may substitute for vehicle travel, and the potential for the creation of denser, more walkable neighborhoods more easily served by transit – much less the cumulative impacts of all of those changes taking place at once – don’t factor into Cox’s calculus. 

So, we’re really grateful for the attention that Poole and Cox (and others) have given to our work on this issue. And we’re happy to continue to debate the finer points of that argument, especially the role of the Millennial generation in leading the trend toward less driving. There is exciting research that is taking place in the academic world that has the potential to shed new light on many of the questions our report raises – especially about the intersection between technological advances and transportation, which will be the subject of a new Frontier Group/U.S. PIRG report at the end of this summer.

But the really important conversation is the one that hasn’t really started: the conversation about how the change in driving trends over the last decade and likely changes in the decades to come affect our transportation policy choices. By waving away the changes in driving trends, especially among young people, as symptoms of temporary economic factors, or by disputing their very existence, Cox and Poole are essentially acting in defense of the vision that has dominated U.S. transportation policy for decades – one that sees highways as the first, best and often only appropriate response to transportation challenges.

After nearly a decade of stagnation in driving, the onus should now fall on defenders of a highway-centric vision of transportation policy to defend it. It is time for them to explain why continued expansions of highway capacity are worth the massive expense to the public; why they are necessary even amid stagnant driving, reduced congestion, and increased demand for resources elsewhere in the transportation system (including in the repair and reconstruction of existing roads and bridges); and where the resources will come from to build that new capacity today and maintain it for decades to come.

The ball is now in their court.