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Transportation 2019—Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Some thoughts on what we might have learned in 2018 and what it might mean going forward.
Steven Polzin | January 3, 2019, 8am PST
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How Smart Are Smart Cars?

I was thinking about smart cars the other day. I don’t pretend to understand how artificial intelligence really works. But I was wondering, will a smart car act differently when it needs to merge if it is next to a guy in a red sports car versus an older woman in a minivan? Will it know that the Johnstone kids play kickball in the front yard on sunny days and you should really drive slowly past their house? Will it remember that the water freezes in the ruts on Main Street and21st Ave. when it gets cold, so you should go really slow and not drive in the ruts? If I tie a Christmas tree, bike, or kayak on the car, will it goof up the LIDAR? Can I tell it to back up around the side of the house on the lawn, so I can unload ten bags of mulch? After a thunderstorm, will it learn that you can usually drive over thin tree branches but probably shouldn’t drive over building materials? Will it have a hitch, and will it know how to back up with a one or two axle trailer? Will it get scared and panic going through a car wash? If I get a new smart car will it download everything the old one learned? If we have two cars will my car teach my wife’s car everything it learns? If my wife sits in the back seat and gives it pointers on how to drive will it pay any attention to her? Can I train it to automatically mute the radio when fake news or hate speech comments are made?

Car Sales Versus Vehicle Miles of Traveled

I have been intrigued with the relationship between vehicle miles of travel (VMT) trends and car sales. Cars are consumables, over time there should be a relationship between vehicle miles traveled and vehicle sales. At any given point in an economic cycle, we might draw down the asset value of vehicle inventory by consuming more mileage than is offset by new vehicle purchases. At other points in time we might be adding to vehicle assets by buying more miles of service (new vehicles) than we are consuming. With carmakers talking about slowing sales and frequent commentaries on peak car, it might be interesting to revisit the relationship. Vehicle miles of travel in the U.S. through September 2018 was running approximately 0.3% above year ago levels, and on track for approximately 3.2 trillion miles of travel. Approximately 10% of that is heavy freight vehicle miles. Interestingly, the growth rate is well below the 2+% increases averaged over the past three years. It’s also well below the population growth rate of approximately 0.6% and the employment growth rate of approximately 1.8%. VMT per person has declined in 2018. The count of registered vehicles appears to be at record levels and the American Community Survey indicated that the share of households with no vehicles has never been lower.

Various data sources suggest that light vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, etc.) have an average useful life of approximately 170,000 miles before scrapping—a number that has grown as cars have become more reliable. The Bureau of Economic Analysis data suggests there will be about 17.5 million light vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018. When you take 17.5 million times 170,000 average miles, it equals 2.98 trillion miles. So, the back-of-the-envelope numbers suggests we will add 2.98 trillion miles worth of transportation vehicle mileage life this year and we will consume approximately 2.9 trillion miles of light vehicle mileage life. So, sales still seem to be a tad ahead of consumption, increasing the vehicle asset base. Of course, longer or shorter vehicle lives can goof up this sophisticated analysis. In the meantime, don’t look for a surge in vehicle sales.

Are Planners Wasting Their Time?

A great deal of the attention of the transportation planning community over the past decade or so has focused on things like improving walkability, advocating bike use, championing transit, and supporting travel demand management with the hopes of increasing use of alternative modes. While one will never know how things would have looked absent these efforts, the aggregate results are pretty disheartening. The September 2018 release of the 2017 American Community Survey data on work trip commuting suggests that past initiatives have not produced the results one might have hoped for. The image portrays the commuting mode shares and the changes in commuting modes between 2013 and 2017. Single occupant vehicle commuting has remained at dramatically high levels, 76.4%. Carpooling, transit, biking, and walking have lost ground in the past few years and in many cases over the long-term as well. The share of folks telecommuting or working at home has changed.

Source: 2017 American Community Survey.

The dependence on auto travel is evidenced by the 2017 data, which indicates only 8.6% of U.S. households (about 5.9% of population) have no vehicles, down 0.5% since 2013 to the lowest level since annual data began being collected in 2005. Only 5.0% of households with workers have no cars. Moreover, in August 2018, vehicle sales data indicated that less than 30% of new vehicles were automobiles, with the growing majority of new vehicles sold being light trucks, SUVs, and vans. 

There are perhaps some lessons in the persistence of these trends. While contemporary transportation planning initiatives might have helped some individuals and communities, maybe even have kept things from getting even worse, they’re not moving the needle in terms of the fundamental behavioral changes that will influence national measures of transportation performance with respect to infrastructure needs, energy use, air quality, public health, safety, etc.

A frustrated planner might proffer that we’re just nibbling at the edges. We do enough to take credit for good intentions and are probably helping some local areas, but we are not doing nearly enough to really make a difference at the national scale. Our levers of influence are simply inadequate. Education and communications are fine, and “providing choices” is certainly a prerequisite to having an impact but we’re not doing enough or the right things to really make a difference. Decision-makers and their constituents are simply not tolerant of the types of initiatives that really make a difference. Meaningful changes in behavior need to be driven with meaningful changes in the factors that influence travel. Dramatic increases in travel costs—not pennies and nickels per gallon but multiple dimes and quarters—could be required before travelers will change behaviors in significant numbers. But that hasn’t worked so well in France lately.

Those with a more customer-centric bent might suggest a different tack. Rather than trying to convince the public of travel and location choices deemed by planners to be better, perhaps planners should surrender to the rather overwhelming evidence that individuals highly value the inherent flexibility of door-to-door on-demand travel choices. The robust increases in auto ownership and the rather stunning success of ridehailing services have shown consumers highly value convenience and flexibility in their travel choices.

If one looks at the real improvements in transportation and mobility over the past few decades, technology has been the impetus for change. Be it safety, energy efficiency, reduced emissions, improved comfort, reliability and affordability, or improved access to mobility options like Uber and Lyft; improved technology has been the most significant basis for improvements. Maybe policies and investments should strive to enhance the pace of development and deployment of technologies that enhance mobility or offset the consequences of vehicles rather than attempting to coax behavior changes in the absence of the political will to implement measures powerful enough to change behavior. 

Dumb and Dumber

In researching the declines in transit ridership, I stumbled across a disgusting number. The Insurance Research Council (IRC)Uninsured Motorists 2017 Edition(2015 data) reports that 26.7% of Florida drivers don’t have car insurance. While Florida tops the list, many other places aren’t doing well either. Countrywide, about one in eight drivers, 13%, on the road in 2015 were uninsured. Uninsured motorist rates varied from 4.5% in Maine to 26.7% in Florida. Other struggling states include Mississippi 23.7%, Michigan 20.3%, New Mexico 20.8%, Tennessee 20.0%, and Washington 17.4%. How would safety, roadway congestion, transit use, and insurance costs (for those drivers that do pay them) be impacted if there were stricter enforcement of insurance requirements? One can bet that, in general, those without insurance are not the safest drivers, driving the most fuel-efficient nonpolluting vehicles. If pressed, some would get insurance and others would resort to alternative means of travel.

If Only I Could Fly

We are flying—5.6% more passenger miles domestically than last year and enplanements have increased by 18% since 2014. Had domestic flying not grown this year we would have had about 0.8 percent more VMT on our roads. Just the 2017 to 2018 increase in domestic flying equals approximately the lifetime mileage of about 136,000 roadway vehicles. On a per capita basis, we are driving less and using transit less but flying more. The average person is flying over 2,000 miles a year domestically and there is a similar amount of international travel. We don’t pay much attention to that when we worry about shifting modes and shortening trip lengths through our transportation planning activities.

What to Watch for in 2019?

Uber and Lyft are preparing for initial public offerings. Once they go public, these companies should share more information and data than they previously made available. The public offering might increase the awareness of the magnitude of investor equity that has been subsidizing the development of this transportation business model. The pressures for profitability could accelerate the upward price trend for rides with transportation network companies. The prospect of additional communities choosing to tax these services and/or regulate compensation of drivers could exacerbate this trend, as could various legal battles. As this mode matures, it will be interesting to see what role rising prices will play in overall mobility. How much would you use ridehailing if the price were 50% higher?

Progress on automated vehicles will no doubt continue, but expectations have been well ahead of progress for several years. Some players will not have sufficiently deep pockets to stay in the game long enough for profitability. We might start to gain more insight about the actual cost at which automated services can be provided and gain a sober appreciation of the market segments and physical environments conducive to the use of automated vehicles. It’s virtually unheard of for transportation infrastructure and systems to be delivered on a schedule even close to initial prognostications. When was positive train control going to be implemented? What about next-generation air traffic control? How about California high-speed rail? When was the interstate system completed relative to the initial plan? Delivering changes in transportation is tough. It will take far longer than we wish. Moving people is much tougher than moving packages. Be patient. 

The four-year downward trend in transit ridership deserves more concern than it is receiving. It is not a normal cyclical fluctuation. Transit advocates don’t like to even talk about it for fear it will undermine future plans. Planners and policy makers need to learn from it. 

Overall roadway travel is likely to change modestly, with perhaps some stimulus from low fuel prices encouraging long-distance roadway travel. An aging population and additional substitution of communications for travel and maybe still more flying are likely to dampen growth trends.

There doesn’t appear to be any meaningful progress toward improved safety. The scourge of distracted driving won’t go away absent far more aggressive strategies, especially as watches get smarter and technology continues to infiltrate the market. Encouragement to bike, walk, ride scooters, etc. exacerbates the safety risks, perhaps faster than infrastructure design improvements can be implemented to enhance safety. Marijuana legalization could have an impact. Each generation of vehicles is a little safer than the last. Fatalities seem to go down as the economy slows. We will see.

A Congress nervous about near single-digit approval ratings will collaborate on infrastructure and address long-range transportation funding needs by taking advantage of the steep dip in fuel prices. Bolstered by the Transportation Research Board recommendations from the congressionally mandated "TRB Special Report 329: Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future," Congress will move ahead with a compromise plan for a $0.25 per gallon fuel tax increase with the no new taxes folks brought on board with a three cents per gallon three-year commitment to fund a vertical highway along the U.S.-Mexico border. Silly me—the safer bet is another year of talk and no action.

Can Rudolf retire if Santa gets an autonomous sleigh in 2019? Will Santa have to follow the rules for drones next Christmas? Happy 2019!

The opinions are those of the author – or maybe not – but are intended to provoke reflection and do not reflect the policy positions of any associated entities or clients. For questions or mobility policy research support contact Polzin@cutr.usf.edu.

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