Optimal Transport Policy For An Uncertain Future

Todd Litman's picture

As I write this column (2 February) the U.S. House Transportation Committee is debating changes in H.R. 3864, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, which will determine future federal transportation policy. The current version significantly reduces support for walking, cycling, public transport and transportation demand management. For example, it would eliminate funding for Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School, significantly reduce federal public transport funding, and gives priority to congestion reduction over air pollution reductions in the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding program.

This is part of a general debate concerning strategic transport policy directions that affects many planning decisions including roadway design, land use development, local and regional transport plans, and state and federal legislation.

Much of this debate is political and ideological, pitting organizations that support multi-modal transport planning, such as the Rails To Trails Conservancy and public health advocates, against major industry and ideological organizations that favor automobile-oriented transport planning, such as the American Trucking Association and the Reason Foundation. Since this is sure to be an on-going discussion, let's consider these issues from a planning perspective.

The House bill reflects the older transport planning paradigm, which assumes that transportation means driving, so transport problem refers to constraints on driving and transport improvement refers to reducing constraints on driving. The new transport planning paradigm recognizes that mobility is seldom an end in itself: the ultimate goal of most transport activity is accessibility(people's ability to reach desired goods, services and activities), that mobility is just one factor affecting accessibility, that transport planning often involves trade-offs between different forms of accessibility (for example, expanding roads and increasing parking requirements in development codes tends to improve automobile accessibility but tends to reduce accessibility by walking, cycling and public transport), and that an efficient transport system is multi-modal, encouraging travelers to use each mode for what it does best: walking and cycling for short trips, ridesharing and public transport for travel on congested urban corridors, and automobile travel when it is truly most efficient overall, taking into account all impacts.

As discussed in a previous column, current demographic and economic trends are reducing growth in automobile travel demand – in fact, per capita VMT peaked about the year 2000, and total VMT peaked in 2007 in the U.S. (see graph below) and most other developed countries, while demand for transport alternatives is expected to increase due to aging population, rising future fuel prices, increased environmental and health concerns, and changing consumer preferences. During the last century, when vehicle ownership and use grew steadily, it made sense to invest significant resources to expand road and parking facilities, but that is no longer justified. It now makes sense to respond to changing demands by shifting resources to create a more diverse and resource-efficient transport system. 


Although some of us may be healthy and wealthy into our old age, it is good to prepare for the worst, which may include physical disability, poverty or much higher fuel prices that require us to drive less and rely more on alternative modes. It makes sense to improve transport options in response to these changing demands and future uncertainties.

Are walking and cycling significant forms of transport deserving of federal support? It depends on how they are measured. Older transport surveys, and often-used statistics such as Census commute more share, generally indicate that non-motorized modes represent just a few percent of total travel, but these statistics tend to undercount walking and cycling because they often exclude short trips, non-commute travel, recreational travel, and travel by children. More comprehensive surveys indicate that walking and cycling represent 10-15% of total trips, and a much higher share in large cities. Unfortunately, non-motorized modes receive far less than that share of transportation funding, typically less than 2% of federal and state funds.

Similarly, conventional planning tends to undervalue public transport benefits by focusing on a limited set of impacts and objectives (for example, parking cost savings, and public safety and health benefits are often overlooked), and because conventional models tend to undervalue the congestion reduction benefits of high quality public transport.

Critics argue that walking, cycling and public tranpsort are local modes which should be planned and financed at the local level; the federal government should focus on intercity travel. That argument is silly, however, since a significant portion of traffic on federally-funded highways is local. That is not accidental, much of the "Interstate" highway system is in urban areas designed to accommodate local trips (my father commuted every day on Interstate 604 in Los Angeles), and improving alternative modes can help improve the performance of these facilities.

The main argument for reducing alternative mode funding is that most of the transportation funds are generated by vehicle registration fees and fuel taxes, so it is unfair to divert these funds to other uses, assuming that consumers should get what they pay for and pay for what they get. But this argument is applied inconsistency: if fairness requires that they money paid by motorists be spent on their facilities fairness also requires that all roadway costs be borne by motorists. In fact, less than half of roadway costs and only a tiny portion of non-residential parking facility costs are financed by motorists' user fees. Spending motor vehicle user revenues to improve walking, cycling and public transport benefits motorists directly by reducing their traffic and parking congestion and reducing their chauffeuring burdens, and helps offset some of their road and parking subsidies.


Advocates of automobile-oriented planning claim that increasing motor vehicle travel is essential to support economic development. My research and recent research by Oregon State University researchers B. Starr McMullen and Nathan Eckstein indicates otherwise. In the future, as petroleum costs rise, energy conservation will probably provide even greater economic benefits. It therefore makes sense to implement policies now that help create a more energy efficient transport system in the future.

What do you think? Have I overlooked any important issue or perspective in this debate? How can planners help public officials develop transport policies that best meet future needs? Should they be more multi-modal? If so, why and how?


For More Information

Jeffrey R. Brown, Eric A. Morris and Brian D. Taylor (2009), "Paved With Good Intentions: Fiscal Politics, Freeways, and the 20th Century American City," Access 35 (www.uctc.net), Fall 2009, pp. 30-37; at www.uctc.net/access/35/access35.shtml.

Phil Goodwin (2011), "Peak Car: Evidence Indicates That Private Car Use May Have Peaked And Be On The Decline," Urban Intelligence Network (www.rudi.net/node/22123 ).

Peter L. Jacobsen, F. Racioppi and H. Rutter (2009), "Who Owns The Roads? How Motorised Traffic Discourages Walking And Bicycling," Injury Prevention, Vol. 15, Issue 6, pp. 369-373; http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/15/6/369.full.html.

Santhosh Kodukula (2011), Raising Automobile Dependency: How to Break the Trend? GIZ Sustainable Urban Transport Project (www.sutp.org); at www.sutp.org/dn.php?file=TD-RAD-EN.pdf. 

John LaPlante (2010), "The Challenge of Multimodalism; Theodore M. Matson Memorial Award," ITE Journal (www.ite.org), Vol. 80, No. 10, October, pp. 20-23; at www.ite.org/membersonly/itejournal/pdf/2010/JB10JA20.pdf.

Todd Litman (2005), "Changing Travel Demand: Implications for Transport Planning," ITE Journal, Vol. 76, No. 9, September, pp. 27-33; at www.vtpi.org/future.pdf .

Todd Litman (2008), Introduction to Multi-Modal Transport Planning, VTPI (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/multimodal_planning.pdf. Todd Litman (2011), The Value of Transportation Enhancements; Or, Are Walking and Cycling Really Transportation?, Planetizen (http://www.planetizen.com/node/52501).

David Metz (2010), "Saturation of Demand for Daily Travel," Transport Reviews, Vol. 30, Is. 5, pp. 659 – 674; summary at www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1006/10060306 and www.eutransportghg2050.eu/cms/assets/Metz-Brussels-2-10.pdf.

John Poorman (2005), "A Holistic Transportation Planning Framework For Management And Operations," ITE Journal, Vol. 75, No. 5 (www.ite.org), May 2005, pp. 28-32; at www.ite.org/membersonly/itejournal/pdf/2005/JB05EA28.pdf. 

Peter Samuel and Todd Litman (2001), "Optimal Level of Automobile Dependency; A TQ Point/Counterpoint Exchange with Peter Samuel and Todd Litman," Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 5-32; at www.vtpi.org/OLOD_TQ_2001.pdf.

Clark Williams-Derry (2011), "Dude, Where Are My Cars?", Sightline Institute (http://daily.sightline.org/blog_series/dude-where-are-my-cars ).


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



bike/ped bridge costs

My local jurisdiction is embarking on replacement of a 50-year-old downtown bridge across the Arkansas River. It will have bike lanes. My question is whether there are more cost-effective, bike-ped friendly alternatives. Specifically, is it possible to build a floating, flat bridge across a slow river, that will part for barge traffic? Then bicyclers would not have to climb the grade necessitated by federal navigation requirements. Or have any jurisdictions chosen bike lanes suspended below or off the side of the automobile spans, rather than lanes built to full car/truck specifications? Seems to me like either option would lower costs and improve bike/ped usability. Thanks for any thoughts.

Transit Fundamentals

Another excellent piece for Planetizen, but since you asked, I’ll give you some thoughts on what you have overlooked!

I think a large part of our problem in encouraging multimodal transportation in the U.S. lies in the ingenious way that highway advocates have divided responsibility for their funding needs into private sector activities (let’s face it, people are willing to spend enormous amounts of money on their cars), user funded government activities (again, even though it doesn’t pay for everything, road users do pay a significant portion of the direct costs of their transportation), and unquestionably necessary publicly funded activities (local roads, police, etc.).

On the transit side of things we have no such device to effectively hide costs. Pretty much the entire cost of providing operations is right there on the balance sheet. I think this is partially due to the odd place in economic history that the transit industry holds in the U.S. It is the only industry that I know of that started out almost completely privately funded, conceived and owned and that was then converted, in the course of just a few years, into an almost completely socialized undertaking. So all of the self-sustaining expectations (and hence lack of consideration of externalities) of private industry were grafted onto what rapidly became perceived of as a social service. These two expectations, which are very strong to this day, can simply never be reconciled.

The way transit is often presented today, an insistence on very low fares, an obsession with high tech add-ons at the expense of fundamental service, an over-emphasis on very expensive projects, and a lack of understanding of the basics of route and service planning, make transit a very easy target for economic conservatives. We need to experiment with new ways of structuring public transit.

Todd Litman's picture

Tilted Playing Field

Thank you, Martin, for your comments.

Yes, current transport planning and funding practices are biased in various ways that tend to favor automobile travel and undervalue alternatives:

* A significant portion of transport funding is dedicated to roads and parking facilities, and cannot be used for alternative modes or demand management strategies, even if they are more cost effective overall. For example, many states have constitutional amendments that limit fuel tax expenditures to highways, and developers are generally not allowed to reduce the parking supply in exchange for investments in alternative modes or demand management programs.

* Transport system performance is evaluated primarily based on roadway level-of-service and average traffic speeds, which assumes that "transport problem" means motor vehicle traffic delay, and "transport improvement" means faster vehicle traffic. This tends to favor mobility over accessibility and automobile travel over other modes. For example, conventional performance indicators see more compact development as undesirable because it increases congestion intensity, although it reduces travel distances and therefore the total amount of time people spend driving, and it cannot perceive the benefits of improved walking and cycling except to the degree that they reduce automobile delays. (See Joe Cortright's "Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening Our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse," www.ceosforcities.org/work/driven-apart ).

Conventional planning is 'reductionist,' it focuses on one objective at a time, and so tends to undervalue strategies that provide modest but multiple benefits. For example, improving public transit service quality can help reduce traffic congestion, road and parking facility costs, consumer costs, accident risk, energy consumption and pollution emissions, as well as improving mobility options for non-drivers, and improving public fitness and health. Conventional transport project economic analysis generally only considers a subset of these benefits.

To their credit, most planners seem to understand that a more diverse and resource-efficient transport system provides many benefits to a community that are not recognized in conventional transport project economic evaluation. Your mission - should you choose to accept it is to help communicate to decision-makers and the general public, why we might want to correct planning biases that favor automobile travel and underfund alternatives.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Build Your Own Paper Block City

Urban Fold is an all-inclusive kit that allows anyone to build the city of their dreams with a few simple folds.
building block set

NEW! Build the world you want to see

Irresistible block set for adults when placed on a coffee table or desk, and great fun for kids.
Book cover of Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning

Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning

Featuring thought-provoking commentary and insights from some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field.

Stay thirsty, urbanists

These sturdy water bottles are eco-friendly and perfect for urbanists on the go.