Tuesday, December 13, 2011

HSR won't be running until 2033, but the benefits are already showing up!!

Just kidding with that title for this blog entry.  

Let's just agree that there are fundamental sea changes taking place during this recession that reflect a basic transformation in the way we live and work, one of them being that we are becoming conditioned to driving less. (Will we need all those additional lanes that the CHSRA keeps threatening us with?)

And no, it's not that we are taking more public transit.  The level of transit use, nationally, remains trivial vis-a-vis that of any other major industrial nation.  A fraction of a percent of increase within a fraction remains a fraction.  And, the increases are mostly within the population centers that have adequate public mass transit.  Our inter-state transit use, by rail, remains no larger than a rounding error.

It's not only that there is such vast unemployment and that people without jobs will not be commuting. It's that so many jobs have disappeared -- permanently.  We previously noted that where a particular factory employed 10,000 workers, they are now, thanks to technologies, able to be as or more productive with several hundred highly skilled workers.  That's due in no small measure to digital information technologies.  

The job down-sizing is also due to the increased productivity from automation driving the declining need for human labor.  There's a TV Show, "How Things Are Made" that will give you a better picture about how we go about making most things now-a-days.

The point is, that certainly by the time the California high-speed train will be up and running (2033), it will be even less necessary than it is right now.  As business travel declines, inter-city rail will become a vestigial transit modality we don't need. We would do the smart thing if we just kept what we have in good running condition, fixing it, upgrading it.  But major expansion is the last thing we should be doing now or in the near future.

Driving Drops Again, but What’s the Big Picture?
•Adie Tomer
•December 12, 2011 | 10:09 am

USA Today always makes a point to cover national trends in transportation, and Larry Copeland and Paul Overberg’s piece last week is no exception. “Economy, gas prices make Americans drive less” is an excellent summary of the recent changes in vehicle miles traveled, or VMT.

The general story is this: Americans have sustained annualized driving drops for six consecutive months, the longest sustained drop since 2008. This also comes at a time when the country showed positive economic growth--2 percent annualized growth in the third quarter--and a string of positive, private sector job reports. 

These divergent trends reinforce the recent decoupling of VMT and economic growth. But does aggregate driving tell us the whole story about American driving habits?

We tend to think personal driving is a better indicator. And that metric reveals a leveling-off in the works for even longer (see chart at the bottom of this post). My colleague Rob Puentes and I first noticed these changes in VMT per capita--or a generalized measure of miles driven per person--back in 2008. Based on our updated calculations of national VMT and Census population estimates, VMT per capita in September 2011 is less than 9,500 miles.

The last time the country saw a VMT per capita rate that low-- September 1997.

Let’s put that date in perspective and the changes we’ve experienced since. The country’s economy grew by over 34 percent (inflation-adjusted). We added roughly 44 million people. Cell phone ownership rates jumped from near 20 percent to over 80 percent. The number one song in America was Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo' Money, Mo' Problems.”  So not everything improved, but you get my drift.

If the nation’s grown in so many respects, especially in economic production, how can personal driving have just stalled-out (pardon the pun)? Researchers think there’s quite a few reasons--slowing demographic shifts, like women entering the workforce; rising levels of e-commerce; sustained jumps in real gas prices--but another alternative is that younger generations simply aren’t driving as much as their forbearers. Is that just a change in the economic climate, or does the upcoming generation really value driving less? We’ll have to wait and see if they sustain these attitudes as more enter the workforce.

Another theory is that households, and commuters in particular, are switching some trips from personal automobile to public transit. On the same day as the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the drop in driving, updated public transportation statistics showed ridership increases, just as we found in our State of Metropolitan America report.

Is this another sign of changing attitudes in American transportation? Is more multi-modality in our future?

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