Unnecessary fuel waste + irrecoverable delay = a price too high to pay – 2

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In Part 1, I had an apparent brain hiccup when I switched in the word “irrevocable” for the word “irrecoverable” in the title. Ah, to be human. “Irrecoverable” is what I intended to use. I hope you will excuse. That said, there is absolutely no excuse for the amounts of wasted fuel, “irrecoverable” delay and lost productivity caused on account of the latter. It’d be one thing if, with a rise in driving, came a corresponding gain in productivity and improvement in mobility along with a reduction in delay. But this is not the case at all.

Granted, miles driven on American roads over the years, has varied; up some years and down in others. The up-and-down nature of vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, seems to be more a function of changing economic conditions than anything else. When the economy is strong, driving activity increases. When the economy is weak, driving activity tapers off – it’s that simple. And seemingly adding to the problem is population growth, but I would be hesitant to form that kind of conclusion simply because population has continued on its upward trajectory even during the period known as the Great Recession, essentially from 2007 to 2009.

Some comparisons

To bring you up to speed, in 2006, “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It” authors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley observed two-thirds of the nation’s roadways are congested at times of peak demand.1 Meanwhile, in 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers cautioned America’s highways are plagued by a congestion rate of 42 percent.2

One of the most telling indicators is, aside from the years of the Great Recession, travel on American roads has progressively slowed and the amount of congestion and delay along with consequent costs on account of these has steadily worsened. A look at the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard from Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute (TTI) and INRIX, will give a clearer picture.

Starting with Travel Time Index, which is defined as travel during peak demand relative to travel during free-flowing traffic conditions, has grown from 1.09 in 1982 to 1.22 in 2014. The only time this ever decreased was in 2009 when the Travel Time Index was 1.20 dropping from 1.21 in 2008.3 A Travel Time Index of 1.5 means that travel during times of peak demand is 50 percent greater than during times of free-flowing traffic. As an example, a car trip to work that would take 1 hour during free-flowing traffic conditions would take 1 hour and 30 minutes during periods of peak demand.

Then there is hours of delay per commuter. Except for recession years, this has gone from 18 in 1982 to 42 in 2014 matching what it was in 2006, 2007 and 2008, retreating to 40 in 2009 and then staying that way in 2010.4

Tracking similarly over the same period are total delay (in billions of hours), wasted fuel (in billions of gallons) and total cost (in “Billions of 2014 Dollars”).

First, total delay: This rose from 1.8 billion hours in 1982 to 6.9 billion in 2014. Next, wasted fuel: In 2014, 3.1 billion gallons were wasted compared to half a billion gallons in 1982. Finally, total cost: $42 billion in 1982 escalating to almost four times that or $160 billion in 2014. Once again, only during the great recessionary period, 2009 primarily, did we see slight dips in these numbers. The numbers resumed their upward ascent starting in 2010 regarding total delay, wasted fuel and total cost. For the other two categories – Travel Time Index and delay per commuter – their numbers began rebounding in 2011.5

Meanwhile, the congestion cost for trucks in 2014, according to INRIX and the TTI in the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, was determined to be $28 billion.6

Interesting to note is that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the United States reached a peak in 2007. For per-capita VMT, the peak was reached in 2004.

In “Amtrak ridership up + road miles heads south = clearer skies ahead,” it is written: “Angie Schmitt, in ‘For Eighth Year in a Row, the Average American Drove Fewer Miles in 2012’ at DC.StreetsBlog.org on Feb. 27, 2013 noted: ‘Last year, for the eighth year in a row, vehicle miles traveled ticked down on a per-capita basis. The average American drove 37 fewer miles in 2012 than in 2011 — a 0.4 percent drop, according to new data from FHWA [the Federal Highway Administration]. It’s a small but significant decrease, continuing the downward slide of per-capita VMT that began in 2004, well before the economy faltered.’

“By the numbers, according to FHWA data, in 1987 and 2007, American vehicle miles traveled were roughly 1.924 trillion and 3.031 trillion, respectively. Contrarily, between the latter year and 2011, miles driven dropped to approximately 2.929 trillion with a slight increase to nearly 2.939 trillion in 2012, a 0.3 percent increase that can be attributed to population growth, according to Schmitt.

“Based on State Smart Transportation Initiative data, on a per capita basis, Americans were averaging around 8,000 miles per year in 1987 to north of 10,000 in 2004. Then the tables turned. In 2012, average per-capita VMT dipped to below 9,500.”

Mobility solutions

There is much debate over what it will take barring a slumping economy to cause congestion and delay to reverse course. This has been extensively written about in books, magazine and newspaper and blog articles like the ones on the Air Quality Matters blog.

There are myriad solutions including better management of traffic; improvement in technology related to traffic being better managed; adjustment in when work is scheduled and in the ways in which people work such as is the case with telecommuting; greater emphasis on alternative forms of transportation, including public transit (employer provided and public) and active transportation (walking and biking); incorporation of subscription car services (car sharing) into the mix; improvement in infrastructure and changes in land use such as in building housing closer to jobs. By no means have all solutions been listed.

The thing to keep in mind though is that without the right kinds of mobility solutions put into place, what with the population, driving, congestion, delay and their corresponding costs growing the way they are, are we to expect anything other than more of the same?

Perhaps the most pointed statement of all is this one from the American Public Transportation Association in its Aug. 26, 2015 “Statement by APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy On 2015 Urban Mobility Report” press release:

“Americans realize our infrastructure needs must be addressed with long-term solutions. While other nations significantly invest in their transportation infrastructure, America now ranks 28th in infrastructure investment and continues to fall behind our global competitors. While we continue to sit in traffic, one has to ask, is this really the best America can do?”

What are the 27 nations ahead of the U.S. in this regard doing that America isn’t?

Notes

  1. Ted Balaker, Sam Staley, “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” 2006, p. 74
  2. More on this at: “Air fare: Why top-heavy roadway spending makes little sense” here
  3. Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute, 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, “Exhibit 2. National Congestion Measures, 1982-2014,” p. 2, http://d2dtl5nnlpfr0r.cloudfront.net/tti.tamu.edu/documents/mobility-scorecard-2015.pdf
  4. Ibid, p. 2
  5. Ibid, p. 2
  6. Ibid, p. 1

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