A Revolutionary Way to Think About Transportation

A brief but fascinating passage appeared in a Free Lance-Star story about a legislative luncheon hosted by the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce. House Speaker William J. Howell “would like a thorough shake-up of the way the Virginia Department of Transportation does business,” reported Chelyen Davis. “While senators are talking about tying road planning to land use planning, Howell said he’d like to see VDOT use different measuring sticks to determine the success of a road project.

“For example, instead of measuring a project by whether it gets done on time and on budget, Howell said, he’d like to measure things like whether that road mitigates congestion“.

Now that’s breakthrough thinking! Imagine if the Kaine administration developed a methodology for ranking all highway projects, all rail projects, all demand-mangement projects (like telecommuting), and all capacity-improvement projects (like synchronized stop lights) by how much traffic mitigation they offered per dollar spent. Imagine if transportation projects were funded on a Return on Investment basis!

Do you think such a list would bear any resemblance to the top-priority projects on the books today? If we could combine this idea with the idea of connecting transportation and land use planning, we could truly revolutionize transportation policy in Virginia. (Note: This post also appears on the Road to Ruin blog.)

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17 responses to “A Revolutionary Way to Think About Transportation”

  1. Oddly or not, that very idea was put forward at the TMG meeting by the Heritage Foundation’s Ron Utt.

    He’s edited a book called “21st Century Highways” that covers a lot of ground you’ve been plowing lo’ these many moons, Jim. But Utt also takes a very dim view of giving local governments more land use authority.

  2. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Allow me to get into the weeds, or on the pavement. This may be another of my ‘Mr. Master of the Obvious’ but my work in future military logistics deals with the same basic problems of throughput.

    The variables are volume, speed, time and distance. If you want more stuff to go faster, then you have to increase volume (capacity for pedestrians, bikes, cars, buses, rail, etc); And/or you modify the speed, time, distance which are independent variables which measure one another.

    S = D/T T = D/S D = S*T

    Except if you improve the flow (S,D,T) then more people may choose to use it so number of users trying to go through a fixed volume increases.

    I’d like to see how the Speaker’s analysts compute ‘mitigation’.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Jim, you’re tackling the transportation problem like a highway engineer. You are assuming that the problem is a capacity issue. How do we increase capacity? Try thinking like an economist. Given finite capacity, we can either increase capacity (supply) or reduce demand, or try a little of both.

    When we talk about telecommuting, distributed work, land use reform and related strategies, we’re talking demand-side economics! Try it, you’ll like it!

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry that the Speaker has no concept that the over-riding criteria for transportation planning and funding is air pollution, not congestion mitigation. Federal transportation funds, which are intermingled with declining State transportation revenues, are linked with improving air quality in areas in pollution non-conformity. Consequently, funds are allocated to transportation projects which have the biggest impact on improving air quality. which may or may not be directly linked with improving traffic flow. The more the State relies on Federal funding the more likely this will become the one and only concern to transportation planning in Virginia.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Norm, Thanks for the tip on Utt’s book. I’ll order it.

    Your comment regarding land use authority touches upon the conceptual breakthrough that needs to take place in the area of land use reform. The phenomenon of “suburban sprawl” is not a free-market phenomenon. It is a quasi-market system distorted by government subsidies (roads, home mortgages, etc.) and regulations (zoning codes, subdivision ordinances, etc.) I would argue that the solution is to allow the market a greater role, not to override it with another layer of regulations.

    The first step is to defeat the transportation tax increase. The second is to institute Howell/Utt-like thinking to the money we already have. The third is to reform land use policies along more free-market principles.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    This is from a recent Metropolitan Washington Council of Government report:

    The Washington region is currently designated non-attainment for the federal health standards for ozone. Clean air legislation in 1977 provided that a metropolitan
    planning organization may not approve any transportation project that did not conform to the approved state implementation plan (SIP) for the attainment of clean air standards. This established the responsibility on the part of COG/TPB to review transportation plans and programs and affirm that they conformed to air quality state
    implementation plans for the region.

    This requirement means that TPB plans, programs and projects must be consistent with clean air objectives. In the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments conformity to an
    implementation plan is defined as conformity to an implementation plan’s purpose of eliminating or reducing the severity and number of violations of the national ambient air quality standards and achieving expeditious attainment of such standards. In addition, Federal activities may not cause or contribute to new violations of air quality standards, exacerbate existing violations, or interfere with timely attainment or required
    interim emission reductions towards attainment.


  7. Riley, Not O'Reilly Avatar
    Riley, Not O’Reilly

    If you mitigate congestion, it will help with air quality. Idling vehicles contribute to poor air quality as well as wasting fuel.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    instead of measuring a project by whether it gets done on time and on budget, Howell said, he’d like to measure things like whether that road mitigates congestion

    Doesn’t make sense to me. Don’t you plan to build a road to mitigate congestion and then make sure the plan is being followed by making sure it’s on time and in budget? Doesn’t seem to me that one is a replacement of the other.

    Or are they saying that they decide to build proposed roads that can be completed cheaply and quickly without regard to traffic mitigation?

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 12:42. It’s hard to know what the Speaker is thinking because the newspaper account was so abbreviated. What’s significant, however, is the very idea — however imperfectly formulated at this time — that transportation projects should be measured to see if they do what they’re touted to do. Business measures performance all the time. So should government.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    “If you mitigate congestion, it will help with air quality. Idling vehicles contribute to poor air quality as well as wasting fuel.”

    Not necessarily, especially given todays automobiles. Higher highway speeds may mean greater pollution because cars burn fuel more efficiently at intermediate speeds.

    Regardless, the real issue is that tranportation planning and funds essentially have to go to the projects that have the biggest impact on air quality, within fiscal constraints. As a result, a region may get more pollution “credits” by funding CNG buses or bike racks on trains than it does by reducing congestion on a given highway. As a result, the government will put its limited dollars into the former even though the latter will have a bigger impact on travel time.

    The bottom line: the tail is wagging the dog. Air quality drives transportation planning and funding, not time and congestion mitigation. It has been this way for almost three decades and I am astounded that folks in State government have no concept.

  11. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Jim, I listed the variables. The demand can go down or the supply can go up. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear. For a given ‘volume’ of demand, you are more constrained.

  12. “Higher highway speeds may mean greater pollution because cars burn fuel more efficiently at intermediate speeds.”

    Idling isn’t an intermediate speed.

    However, it is much less costly to design and build multiple roads for intermediate speeds than to design and build one for high speed.

    Also, we can do a lot more for air pollution by not driving 250 HP pocket rockets and giant SUV’s than we can through road or urban design. So what do we do when such a vehicle comes along, like the hybrids? We slap a tax on them for not contributing their share by burning less gas, as Oregon has done.

    If an area gets more credit for adding CNG buses while cars continue to idle somewhere else, this might be a case where our measuring system has failed. In other words, we don’t know enough to say what is best.

    One place where we really don’t know enough is about what the drivers are for suburban sprawl. I happen to agree with Bacon that we need a bigger dose of free market, but I think he has been drinking his own cool-aid with regard to the result. Even without your so-called sprawl subsidies, Urban areas are more expensive and less efficient. More free market will mean more sprawl, not less.

    If you want to reduce the demand for driving, the best and most efficient way to do this is raise the price. The transportation tax does that, and offering multiple other travel choices is more expensive and will have a very limited impact on demand.

    Besides, if there were a market for those other options, why do they need incentives or other support? You have previously said that roads don’t mitigate traffic, and now you think measuring them on their mitigation potential is a great idea. I’m pretty sure that even if you consider speed, time, distance, pollution, and cost urban areas come out dead last in the competition for new roads, and since that is where the demand is highest, it is also where the mitigation will be least. If you try to make the link between land use and traffic, the first thing that would happen would be a limit to further development where the congestion is worst.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    I don’t disagree with your points — I am only pointing out that the Federal government has forced us into a numbers game that is focused on a by-product of transportation and not the issue of transportation itself. I also believe that transportation planning and funding has been shanghied by well-intentioned folks who think that they can change human behavior through transportation, instead of the reverse. The result of this focus at the federal, state and local side has partially caused the problems were are facing today.

    A final point about sprawl — get used to it. With telecommuting and virtual offices, people can live and work anywhere because most of the time they do not have to commute. They will, however, travel to a metropolitan area at least a couple of times a week for meetings, etc. That is happening now, with a recent Virginia Tech survey showing that almost 18% of the DC-area workforce commuting more than 100 miles because they only go into an actual workplace 2-3 times a week.

    This is reality and it is the future, and we have got to deal with it.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    This is where the 18% came from:

    The future of DC region extends far away, researcher says
    Associated Press Writer
    Wednesday, December 14, 2005

    WASHINGTON – The day will come when Baltimore, Richmond and even Norfolk are considered part of the Washington metropolitan area, and the urban planner who made that prediction Wednesday warned the time to plan for that is now.

    Robert Lang, director of urban and metropolitan research at Virginia Tech, divided the U.S. into 10 regions. On the East Coast, one stretches from Boston to Norfolk.

    “Richmond’s fate is more shared with Washington, D.C., than it is to the rest of Virginia,” Lang said. “If we let these things happen to us rather than get ahead of it, it will be much worse.”

    By getting ahead of it, he means infrastructure _ namely high speed rail _ pointing out future competitors to the region will be Europe and Asia.

    He believes the best way to be competitive is to better link hotter economic areas, like Washington, with nearby cities like Baltimore and Richmond. And Lang contends that a fast train between D.C. and Baltimore is especially critical to relieve some of the pressures on housing and traffic.

    “The rickety Amtrak system is a joke today,” Lang said.

    But the idea is stopped in its tracks by a lack of federal interest, he said.

    “The U.S. has absolutely no plan to upgrade the level of connectivity,” Lang said. He offered a contrast, saying Air France no longer even runs nonstop service between Paris and Brussels because high speed rail replaced it.

    Lang spoke to the annual meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, whose incoming president, Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, said that example really struck him.

    “Here we’re fighting to keep Amtrak alive in one of the densest corridors in the world. That brinks on absurd,” Fisette said.

    Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan _ a candidate for Maryland governor _ agreed high speed rail to Baltimore makes sense, but also agreed there is little federal support.

    “If they can’t support that (Amtrak) how can we rush forward and do something else?” Duncan asked.

    Lang said studies of drivers making 100-mile trips reveal 18 percent are simply commuting to work. He believes that could climb to 30 percent in the years ahead, though most of those workers would telecommute several days a week.

    “That is your work force. That’s your future,” Lang said.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    This is Anonymous 12:42

    Thank you, Mr. Bacon. I get it now.

  16. Anonymous 3:57

    Your take on air pollution laws planning our road spending for us is a new one to me. I suspect you are right.

    We are not going to reduce auto travel through land use restrictions or reform, and not through urban design either. Price might do it, but before that happens we’ll be driving 5 HP cars the size of wheelchairs.

    No politician who likes his job is going to raise the price artificially. Any gas we save is going to be burned in China anyway.

    I agree that we are going to use more land, call it sprawl if you like. If we are lucky and smart we can avoid repeating the worst examples and make the rest more pleasing and environmentally sound without cheating anyone.

    So far, that is not the way it is shaping up.

  17. Suppose that those who claim automobiles reign supreme only because they are supported by various subsidies and uncharged external costs are correct.

    Suppose that those who claim that suburbia reigns supreme only because it is supported by various subsidies and uncharged external costs are correct.

    If the price of using autos wer to rise to its natural level, then more people would choose to use transit and other modes of travel.

    If the price of living in suburbia increased by removing all the supposed subsidies, then more people would choose to live in urban areas.

    The demand would cause the cost of living in urban areas and traveling in urban using transit to increase.

    The value of using transit and the costs of providing it are closely related to density.

    The cost of urban housing is closely related to density and size.

    This suggests that the costs of using both autos and transit are too low.

    The value in living in a city (close to each other) lies primarily in reducing the costs of transportation for both buyer and seller of goods and services.

    Raising the price of auto service raises the value of transit service, and the price.

    It is not too hard to come up with some functions for these variables. If you iterate around the problem you can eventually calculate a net benefit maximization. This is what I have previously referred to as the Gross National Happiness.

    Because you have countervailing forces at work, and because those forces are made inefficient through the intervention of public policy and politics, we live in a suboptimal condition.

    As Jim Bacon has observed, that condition would likely improve if we allow private businesses more say in both housing and transportation pricing. But because countervailing forces are at work, we should not expect a major change in conditions, even if switching to a true free market system allowed for billions in savings.

    Suburbia existed long before the automobile: we can’t blame autos for people wanting to have a private back yard.

    The sprawlophobes, the efficiency nazis, the ecology terrorists, the avaricious big developers, the familily units, and the business as usual chamber of commerce all boil down to a boiling thrashing pot full of writhing socialist eels.

    If you iterate around all the variables long enough, what you are likely to find is that the system we have is conceptually close to optimal. To the extent that it is not optimal, we can blame it on politics. Anyone who thinks they can push their own agenda to a successful conclusion is likely to find that that they are only increasing the tension in a giant web of knotted rubber bands.

    We are a bushel basket full of octopuses having an orgy: every one reaching for whatever they can get. But in the end, we are all still in the same basket.

    When we stop arguing and evaluate autos against transit fairly, we will find out that they are both underpriced, and that transit only works in the densest communities.

    We’ll find out that because urban areas are so expensive, the same money buys you less. We’ll find out that if you are looking for a mate you go to the city, but if you have a mate you go to the suburbs. We’ll find out that the cities are expensive because the people that live there are poor, and any one that can afford a car gets out.

    We’ll find out there is a natural balnace between the city and sprawl, between automobility and sharing a ride.

    All we have to do is relax, in order to enjoy the least tension, or as Bacon says, less regulation not more.

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