Friday, July 15, 2011

If you are already becoming well, why start taking the medicine? And, is it the right medicine anyhow?

One of the biggest arguments supporting the development of high-speed train is that traffic congestion has been a major problem in California.  With that congestion came oil consumption and environmental pollution.  But, with one fell swoop, the high-speed train would fix all those problems.  That's what we're being told.

Furthermore, the rail advocates took great pains to point out how car trips were more costly in every way than train trips. And therefore, the very existence of high-speed trains, by reducing all those car trips, would boost the economy. So, what if those auto related problems are starting go away by themselves?

Burt first, here's a question. The US government recently bailed out several of our major automakers to save thousands of jobs.  Our auto industry is a major revenue producer that contributes significantly to the US economy.  Therefore, why would we want to create transit systems the purpose of which is to reduce our car dependence, and therefore our need for cars?  

Why do we want to drive the US auto industry into permanent, irrevocable decline?  Oddly enough, HSR has collateral costs usually not tallied into the cost-benefit equation. Ditto for the airline industry, which HSR intends to challenge.  Is it our intention to drive the air carriers into mergers and bankruptcy?

Now we are discovering that this process of car travel reduction is beginning to take hold all by itself; we don't need a high-speed train to obtain this result.  We have, according to this article, reached peak car use and it is now in a gradual decline.  The article also attributes this to six reasons, some more plausible than others.

It is in fact true that there is increased transit use in the US and that by itself has an adverse effect on auto use.  However, the transit use that is increasing is primarily in the short-haul, urban and regional commuter transit modalities, not the longer inter-city transit. Furthermore, it is also the case that in its totality in the US, transit use, especially rail, is really minuscule, a mere fraction of all transit.  But, never mind; I don't want to quibble.

The point in this discussion is that if those outcome effects are justifications for the development of high-speed rail, and since those outcome effects are already taking place, there really is little justification for high-speed rail, particularly due to its enormous costs, which can be spared and re-dedicated to the construction of more fuel-efficient urban/regional transit and cars as well as safer highways. And that process will cost us far less, even as car traffic continues to diminish.

What we intend to build -- a high-speed rail network in the US -- has missed its historical window in the US.  If we ever needed such a service, that time has passed and the article's justifications for car traffic decline makes that case for us.

6 Reasons Driving Has Peaked in U.S. Cities
Posted on Thursday July 14th by Eric Jaffe

Americans drove a lot in 2010. Roughly 3 trillion miles, to be more precise. The third-highest total mileage figure in history, to be more precise still.

But while vehicles in general continue to rack up mileage, some road researchers have noticed that driving in major cities has reached an unexpected plateau — a phenomenon known as “peak car use.” The Brookings Institution discovered this trend a few years back, Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper confirmed it earlier this year, and just last month a pair of Australian scholars reported that peak car use appears to be a global trend that’s here to stay.

In the June issue (pdf) of the journal World Transport, Policy & Practice, Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, in Perth, report that per capita vehicle kilometers traveled in several major cities around the world actually declined from 1995 to 2005. In Europe, London dropped 1.2 percent, Stockholm 3.7, and Vienna 7.6. In the United States, Atlanta fell 10.1 percent and Houston 15.2; even Los Angeles fell 2 percent. The chart above shows a clear slowing of growth in car use in recent times.

The effects of this behavioral shift could change the structures of cities as we know them, according to Newman and Kenworthy. “Peak car use suggests that we are witnessing the end of building cities around cars at least in the developed world,” they write. The duo then offer six reasons why peak car use is occurring now:

1. Hitting the Marchetti Wall. The Marchetti “wall” or “constant” says that people don’t like to take more than an hour out of their day for travel time. Once a city is an “hour-wide,” its growth hits a wall.

2. The Growth of Public Transport. Once such a wall is reached by car use, write Newman and Kenworthy, much of the travel burden shifts to public transit. The growth of transit has an “exponential” impact on driving known as the “transit leverage” effect, they write. In other words, ”even small increases in transit can begin to put a large dent in car use growth and eventually will cause it to peak and decline.”

3. The Reversal of Urban Sprawl. Readers of this space are certainly familiar with the country’s shifting population trends — particularly the growing popularity of “walkable cities.” Newman and Kenworthy point out that a rise in urban density typically acts as a “multiplier on the use of transit and walking/cycling.”

4. The Aging of Cities. In their weakest point, the authors write that people in cities are getting older, and that older people tend to drive less. They probably missed a chance here to note an even more intriguing age-related trend (which we’ve pointed out before): that the digital age may be diminishing people’s desire to drive
5. The Growth of a Culture of Urbanism. Essentially 3b.

6. The Rise in Fuel Prices. The logic here is that high gas prices have caused Americans either to drive less or to use other transport modes more (though, relatively speaking, U.S. gas prices are actually pretty low). In reporting on Newman and Kenworthy’s work, Streetsblog DC points out the strong correlation between economic downturns and driving decline. Which factor plays a greater role in peak car use — fuel prices or any of the aforementioned trends — should become more clear after the U.S. regains its solid economic footing.

Newman and Kenworthy close their report by telling regional planners to take note. Fast Company takes them at their word —

If all of these factors actually do cause a dramatic decline in car usage, city planners will have to think more about factoring light rail, buses, cycling, and walking routes into their plans.

but one might also argue that a balanced system of light rail, buses, cycling, etc., is exactly what good city planners think about, and that it’s actually the public officials with the power to fund such thoughts who should factor research like the present study into their plans.

Eric Jaffe is on Twitter

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