Are We Building New Roads and Highways Based on Incorrect Data
Are We Building New Roads and Highways Based on Incorrect Data? A New Study (top)
Just how accurate is the data we rely on to justify billions of dollars of spending on new roads? A report from CEOs for Cities took a hard look at the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report (UMR), which created the industry standard for determining just how many new roads and highways we need to build. The report, titled Driven Apart: How Sprawl Is Lengthening Our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures Are Making Things Worse and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, ranked how long residents in the nation’s largest 51 metropolitan areas spend in peak traffic. And in some cases, the rankings are almost the opposite of those listed in the 2009 UMR.
Some of the stats were ludicrously inconsistent — the UMR depicts Chicago as having some of the worst travel delays in the country, while the CEOs for Cities report found it actually has the shortest time spent in peak traffic of any major metropolitan area. Granted, the metrics used in each study may leave a little wiggle-room — “travel delays” aren’t the same thing as “time spent in peak traffic.” But the latter is certainly the most relevant to congestion, and road construction. The total result of the inaccuracies, according to the report, was that the UMR overstated the cost of road congestion by about $49 billion.
According to CEOs for Cities President and CEO Carol Coletta:
This analysis, once again, shows that many of the assumptions driving big investments of taxpayer dollars that shape our communities are outdated…. Driven Apart adds to the growing body of evidence that shows compact development that puts many destinations close at hand has unexpected benefits — in this case, less time spent in traffic requiring less spending on highways. If we heed its findings, we’ll save time and money.
In other words: Blame it all on the sprawl.
The US has NOT measured vehicle use (as opposed to counting axle impressions and deriving TRAFFIC numbers) in many years. Reagan ditched the really serious parts of the household vehicle use survey that included fuel consumption diaries. The 1995 and 2001 Household Travel surveys were substantially complete, but the Bush Administration only funded part of the 2008/9 household survey (NHTS). We have some idea of traffic, but not how humans move in way accurately enough to really understand issues related to congestion, to the relationship between where you live and where you work AND what modes you use (although metropolitan travel surveys do tell us a lot). The problem is that in the end we build roads, then argue for expensive systems like high speed rail but still continue to build the roads.
Oops we are out of money now and things MIGHT change. But we can't change without good measures of how we move and how that is changing. Imagine all the media who called me in 2008 to ask how Americans have changed their travel patterns in response to higher oil prices. "Wait until the new National Household Travel Survey" emerges in 2010. Well, it emerged, but only with the 1 day "travel day" survey, not the part that covers roughly a third of our passenger-kilometers that take place over more than one day. So we don't know how the higher fuel prices affected our travel patterns on a national level.
Other countries do this surveying yearly, or even have continuous rotating panels. In the US the money has to be begged for years, and the very existence and fielding of the 2008/9 survey was up in the air for a long time.
Imagine if I went to the doctor with last year's blood pressure, Eric's urine sample, and my neighbor's pulse, and asked the doctor what was wrong. That is how the US understands travel patterns, particualrly as they relate to fuel use and emissions.
Harumph I say
Lee Schipper, Ph.D.
Project Scientist, Global Metropolitan Studies, UC Berkeley
Senior Research Engineer, Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, Stanford Univ.
phone +1 510 642 6889
fax +1 510 642 6061
cell for emergencies +1 202 262 7476
PS. How did you get my urine sample Lee? eb