The Value of Transportation Enhancements; Or, Are Walking and Cycling Really Transportation?

Todd Litman's picture
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An important current policy debate concerns whether the next U.S. federal surface transportation reauthorization should require spending on "enhancements," which finance projects such as walkways, bike paths, highway landscaping and historic preservation. This issue receives considerable attention, despite the fact that enhancements represent less than 2% of total federal surface transportation expenditures, because it raises questions about future transport priorities, particularly the role of walking and cycling. In other words, should non-motorized modes be considered real transportation.

Critics argue that enhancements projects are luxuries and it is unfair to divert motor vehicle user fees to projects that do not directly benefit motorists. As Ronald Utt of the Reason Foundation wrote about enhancement funding categories, "Alert readers will note that none of the above eligible uses supports transportation in the modern sense of the term. Indeed, these 12 categories have as much to do with transportation and mobility as G.I. Joe dolls have to do with national security." According to that view, walking and cycling are not real transportation, at least, not in the "modern sense of the term," they are nothing more than children's entertainment. (I wonder if this perspective is shared by Reason Foundation fellow and Planetizen Blogger, Samuel Staley, who recently described how he enjoys bicycle commuting. Any comments Sam?) Let's examine these arguments.

 

Responsive Priorities

As described in a previous Column, travel demands are changing. Total motor vehicle travel peaked in 2007 and is expected to remain flat in most area (those not experiencing rapid population growth) due to demographic and economic trends including aging population, rising fuel prices, increasing health and environmental concerns, and changing consumer preferences. This is not to suggest that North Americans will give up driving altogether, but at the margin many people want to drive less and rely more on alternatives, provided they are convenient, comfortable and integrated. It makes sense for transport policies to respond to these demands by helping create a more diverse, resource-efficient transport system.

Although federal funds provide only about 30% total roadway expenditures, they have significant leverage effects on state and local transport planning decisions. For example, if the federal government offers attractive grants for highway projects, states and local governments will plan to solve their transport problems with highway expansions. If more federal funding is provided for alternative modes, state and local officials will consider other solutions.

Current planning tends to be biased in various, often subtle ways that favor automobile transport over other modes. For example, conventional travel surveys, and resulting travel statistics, tend to undercount non-motorized travel because they overlook short trips, off-peak trips, travel by children, and non-motorized links of linked trips. A bike-transit-walk trip is often coded simply as a transit trip, and a motorist who parks several blocks from work and walks is simply considered an auto commuter. Although conventional travel surveys suggest that only 4-6% of trips are non-motorized, more comprehensive surveys, such as the National Household Travel Survey, indicate they are actually 10-15%, and even higher in large cities. Non-motorized travel improvements receive far less than this portion of funding: only 1.2% of total federal surface transport funds are spent on non-motorized facilities, and although local governments probably devote a somewhat larger share of their transport budgets to sidewalks and paths, perhaps 3-6%, but that is still much less than the share of non-motorized trips.

Another bias is that transport system performance is generally evaluated using mobility-oriented indicators, such as roadway level-of-service, average traffic speed, and traffic congestion delays, which assumes that the goal is to maximize vehicle travel speeds, so faster modes are more important than slower modes. This approach tends to undervalue non-motorized modes, and ignores the ways that planning decisions that improve motorized travel often reduce non-motorized accessibility, for example, if wider roads and increased travel speeds create a barrier to walking and cycling, and if highway expansion and generous minimum parking requirements encourages dispersed, automobile-oriented development that reduces land use accessibility.

For example, this type of planning considers the transport system to fail if motorists encounter congestion (roadway level-of-serve D or worse) when chauffeuring children to school, or driving to a gym to exercise on a treadmill, or somebody drives to reach a recreational cycling path, but does not recognize a failure if inadequate walking and cycling facilities prevent students from walking and cycling to schools, or if residents are unable to walking or bicycle in their own neighborhoods. Fortunately, the new Highway Capacity Manual includes guidance on multi-modal level-of-service evaluation, but such reforms are inadequate without funding to improve walking and cycling conditions.

Most federal and state funds are dedicated to roads. About half of all states have constitutional amendments that dedicate road user fees to highways. Federal match rates tend to be higher for highways than for other modes, and highway projects often require less analysis and review than other transport investments.

Critics argue that non-motorized improvements, if justified, are a local rather than a federal concern, but this ignores the large portion of federal highway capacity used for local travel. As a result, the federal government helps accommodate motorists driving children to school, driving to gyms or trails for exercise, and numerous other local trips, some of which could instead be made by walking and cycling if conditions were better.

 

Non-motorized Transport Benefits  

Improved walking and cycling conditions, and increased non-motorized travel activity can provide numerous benefits to users and society, including congestion reductions, road and parking facility cost savings, consumer savings and affordability, improved mobility for non-drivers, energy conservation, pollution emission reductions, improved public fitness and health, and local economic development. Total per capita accident rates (including both motorized and non-motorized road users) tend to decline as walking and cycling rates increase in a community, an effect called safety in numbers.

Even motorists who never walk or bicycle can benefit from such improvements. For example, if you want your neighbor to avoid driving home after drinking at the local bar, it's pretty important that he have good sidewalks. Improving walking and cycling conditions reduces drivers' chauffeuring burdens.

Critics sometimes argue that only a small portion of travel can reasonably shift to walking and cycling, or non-motorized improvements do little to reduce problems such as traffic and parking congestion, but this reflects an incomplete understanding of the role walking and cycling play in an efficient transport system. Communities with good non-motorized facilities have walking and cycling mode shares several times higher than the North American average. Many of these additional non-motorized trips substitute for driving. Improving walkability increases the parking facilities that serve a destination, reducing parking congestion problems. Most public transit trips include non-motorized links, and improving walking and cycling conditions is often key to shifting travel from driving to public transit. A shorter pedestrian or bicycle trip often substitutes for a longer motorized trip, non-motorized travel improvements support more compact land use development, and improving alternative modes allows some households to reduce their vehicle ownership, so pedestrian and cycling improvements can leverage additional reductions in automobile travel, so each mile increase in pedestrian and cycling travel can provide more than vehicle-mile reduction in automobile travel.

 

Funding Equity 

Enhancement critics argue that it is unfair to spend money collected from motorists though fuel taxes and other user fees to finance other modes, based on the assumption that consumers should "get what they pay for and pay for what they get."

But this argument is hypocritical since the same logic also demands that motorists should bear the full costs they impose. In fact, road user fees finance less than half of total roadway expenditures, a portion that is declining since fuel taxes have not increased to account for inflation. Walking and bicycling impose far lower (probably about 10%) road and parking costs than driving measured per mile, and non-drivers tend to travel far fewer annual miles than motorist on average. As a result, people who rely primarily on walking and cycling for transport tend to subsidize the transport costs of their neighbors who drive. 

Total roadway expenditures per capita average about $400 annual per capita, about half from motorist user fees and half from general taxes. This is the amount an average traveler imposes and pays. A person who relies primarily on non-motorized travel pays $200 annually in general taxes but only imposes about $25 in roadway costs, and so pay $175 more than their costs. Conversely, a motorist who drives twice average mileage imposes $800 in roadway costs but only pays $600 in taxes, and so underpays.

Vehicle travel imposes other external costs. There are typically three or more off-street parking spaces provided per motor vehicle, with total value estimated at $1,000-2,000 annual per vehicle, and motor vehicle travel imposes significant accident and pollution costs on other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, higher-annual-mileage motorists significantly underpay, and people who rely on alternative modes overpay their transport costs. This is unfair and economcially inefficient because it encourages people to drive more than they would choose if road users paid directly for the costs they impose.

Enhancements help mitigate the risks and problems that motor vehicle travel imposes, for example by financing pedestrian bridges over highways that divide neighborhoods, and paths that separate pedestrians and cyclists from highway risk and pollution. In other words, enhancements allow motorists to help clean up the mess they make.

As I've written previously, automobile transportation is so costly that it tends to make users selfish. In an automobile dependent community people are forced to drive even if it strains their budget. They then argue, "I'm forced to spend thousands of dollars annually on a car just for basic transportation, I can't possibly afford to pay more. I need a subsidy!" As a result, they become upset when asked to pay the full costs of roads, parking and fuel, or to share resources with other modes. The smart solution to this problem is to improve alternatives so people have better, more affordable options. That is exactly the value of Enhancements.

What do you think? Should federal support for non-motorized modes increase or decline in the future? What arguements do you find most persuasive in this debate?

 

For More Information 

ABW (2010), Bicycling and Walking in the U.S.: 2010 Benchmarking Report, Alliance for Biking & Walking (www.peoplepoweredmovement.org); at www.peoplepoweredmovement.org/site/index.php/site/memberservices/C529.

Joe Cortright (2009), Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities, CEOs for Cities (www.ceosforcities.org); at www.ceosforcities.org/files/WalkingTheWalk_CEOsforCities1.pdf.

FIA – UNEP (2011), Share the Road: Investment in Walking and Cycling Road Infrastructure,
FIA Foundation for Automobiles and Society and the United Nations Environmental Program (http://www.unep.org); at http://www.unep.org/transport/sharetheroad/PDF/SharetheRoadReportweb.pdf.

Fietsberaad (2009), Cycling in the Netherlands, Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management (www.minvenw.nl) and Fietsberaad (Expertise Centre for Cycling Policy) (www.bicyclecouncil.org); at www.fietsberaad.nl/library/repository/bestanden/CyclingintheNetherlands2009.pdf.

LAB (2010), Highlights the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, League of American Bicyclists (www.bikeleague.org); at www.bikeleague.org/resources/reports/pdfs/nhts09.pdf.

Todd Litman (2003), "Economic Value of Walkability," Transportation Research Record 1828, Transportation Research Board (www.trb.org), pp. 3-11; at www.vtpi.org/walkability.pdf.

Todd Litman (2005), Whose Roads? Evaluating Bicyclists' and Pedestrians' Right to Use Public Roadways, VTPI (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/whoserd.pdf.

Todd Litman (2010), Short and Sweet: Analysis of Shorter Trips Using National Personal Travel Survey Data, VTPI (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/short_sweet.pdf.

Todd Litman (2011), Evaluating Non-Motorized Transport Benefits and Costs, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/nmt-tdm.pdf; originally published as "Quantifying Bicycling Benefits for Achieving TDM Objectives," Transportation Research Record 1441, Transportation Research Board (www.trb.org), 1994, pp. 134-140.

Living Streets (2011), Making The Case For Investment In The Walking Environment, Living Streets Program (www.livingstreets.org.uk), University of the West of England and Cavill Associates; at www.livingstreets.org.uk/index.php/tools/required/files/download?fID=1668.

NHTS (2010), Active Travel: NHTS Brief, National Household Travel Survey (http://nhts.ornl.gov); at http://nhts.ornl.gov/briefs/ActiveTravel.pdf.

S. Turner, R. Singh, P. Quinn and T. Allatt  (2011), Benefits Of New And Improved Pedestrian Facilities – Before And After Studies, Research Report 436, NZ Transport Agency (www.nzta.govt.nz); at www.nzta.govt.nz/resources/research/reports/436/docs/436.pdf.

 

Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Comments

Comments

Bike Ped is transportation, not Enhancements

I think the danger is lumping walking and biking in with TE projects. If walking and biking is don in road corridor or other type of corridor in a multi-modal transportation network, it's transportation. Historic preservation, trails, etc which are enhancements.

If we gave the pot of money solely to bike ped projects, I think we would have an easier time defending these projects.

Enhancement Program with Two Purposes

I agree with all of your points, but I wonder if there is any discussion about restructuring the enhancement program to put more weight on the core transportation choice purpose rather than it's other purpose to "enhance the transportation experience." People seem to be talking past one another in this debate. Critics want to draw attention to the lighthouses and interpretive centers, call the whole thing unnecessary fluff in a tight economy, and end the program altogether. Defenders call attention to the projects with real utility and note the consequences to safety and mobility that would result from eliminating the funding. It sometimes feels like we're talking about completely separate programs.

The Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board tried to tighten up TE grants a couple of years ago by passing a policy stating they would give preferential treatment to enhancement projects with a core transportation purpose. However, without any regulatory language in place, it has been hard to actually practice this kind of restraint.

Do lighthouses and crosswalk improvements critical to public safety have to be tied to the same federal funding stream? (This is an honest question, because I don't know enough about the reauthorization bill to know what is politically feasible and what isn't).

Todd Litman's picture
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Transportation and Enhancements

Thanks for your feedback, Daniel.

You raise an interesting point. I agree that walking and cycling are important forms of mobility that help achieve transport planning objectives (congestion reductions, road and parking facility cost savings, improved mobility for non-drivers, improved safety, etc.) and so may deserve higher priority in funding allocation than other types of enhancements. Other investments may provide real value, such as attracting tourism and therefore economic development, or preserving valuable cultural amenities, but you could argue that those should rely on other funding sources, such as parks departments, rather than transportation agencies.

There may be a need to tighten up grant requirements, but my guess is that the adjustments would be minor: most funded projects are probably pretty reasonable. Critics often misrepresent the types of projects that receive federal enhancement funding as Joan Lowy describes in a recent column (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/30/republican-lawmakers-spin_n_106...). As Utt indicates in his quote above, enhancement critics generally assume that walking and cycling are not really transportation, "at least in the modern sense." To the degree this is true, they would oppose funding for non-motorized transport improvements separated from other enhancement categories.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
www.vtpi.org
facebook.com/todd.litman
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Ineherent bias in the lexicon

I think part of the problem is the bias in names.
Transportation enhancements (TE) indicates that these are enhancements to an existing transportation system, a luxury that can be trimmed. That may be why TE projects are rescinded by States at a much higher rate than other projects.

In addition, the term "non-motorized" tends to elicit bias as much as the term "alternative" transportation. Both bring the reader or listener to think of bicycling and walking as an alternative to driving (hence driving/motorized transportation is the main focus and anything else is an alternative. As one of the advocates in my city once stated "When did walking become an alternative form of transportation for the human species?"

Active Transportation is the current nom de jour for bicycling or walking. But even that tends to separate it from motorized transportation, when most often bike lanes/routes are on roadways and sidewalks are parallel. Perhaps this is why the new trend is towards “Complete Streets” which is a step in the right direction.

I also wanted to highlight that what gets measured gets funded. There are a host of monitoring equipment on roadways to measure AADT, Peak traffic, evening traffic and weekend traffic on that specific roadway. Bicycling and walking are usually measured once every ten years as part of household travel surveys.

Once bicycling and walking are considered equals in the various modes of transportation by our policy makers, then they will be treated as equals by our policy implementers.

Todd Litman's picture
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Biases Against Active Transportation

Thank you for your comments, Thompson.

Yes, I agree that the terms we use are often unclear and contribute to the bias against walking and cycling. "Non-motorized" describes what they are not, and although I like the term "active transport," it is also unclear (all transport is "active" in a general sense, so a more accurate term would be "physically active transport", which is a mouthful). I generally alternate between "walking and cycling," "non-motorized travel" and "active transport" so people become familiar with all these terms.

I agree that it is very important to develop better multi-modal performance evaluation methods (http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm131.htm ), such as walking, cycling and public transport level-of-service (LOS) indicators (http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm129.htm) so we can better communicate their conditions and impacts. Currently, most regions produce maps showing which roads "fail" in terms of roadway level-of-service, which reflects automobile travel conditions. With multi-modal performance indicators we could say, "Yes, this roadway rates LOS C for driving, which is moderately congested, but it rates LOS D for public transit service and LOD E for walking and cycling, so improving these other modes is more important than improving driving conditions.

Fortunately, the new Highway Capacity Manual includes multi-modal performance indicators, so it is possible to do, but it will require some effort by transport agencies and engineers to implement them, particularly because they require new data sets. It is therefore important to establish multi-modal performance evaluation as a strategic objective, so it becomes standard practice to collect data on the conditions of sidewalk, crosswalk, and road shoulder conditions, and other data required.

It might be useful to require everybody involved in transport planning to spend a week or two each year without driving, so they can experience the non-automotive transport system, including the quality of walking, cycling, public transit and taxi services, including details such as the ease of obtaining information and the quality of connections between them.

What do you think?

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
www.vtpi.org
facebook.com/todd.litman
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

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