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This is How We Roll

December 12, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

As in much of the rest of America, people in the Twin Cities are driving less but riding transit, bicycling and walking more. And thanks to growing rates of telecommuting and mobile connectivity -- plus, perhaps, effects of the Great Recession -- total trips by all modes in the region were down by nearly 2 million per average weekday from 2000 to 2010 -- an astonishing decline of more than 15 percent.

These findings of the Metropolitan Council's decennial Travel Behavior Inventory raise important questions about the future direction of public investments in mobility for Minnesota's urban economic center. And although the study still shows a lopsided, if slipping, dominance by private motoring of our ways of getting around, analyzing it with less autocentric bias may move us even farther away from the metro's road-heavy transportation solutions of the past half-century.

The TBI is a massive research project, drawing on single-day travel diaries of 30,000 people in 14,000 households, plus each member of 285 of the households carrying a global positioning device for a week. It counts each leg of a journey as a trip, which means that going from home to a supermarket to a bank to a dry cleaner and back home counts as four trips.

Declines in practically every measure of Twin Cities motorization were found over the past decade, but most markedly in motor trips per household. After 30 years of steady increase to a high of 10.3 per day, the rate fell to 8.05 in 2010, virtually the same as the 1970 level. In overall numbers, daily car trips fell from 7.7 million to 6.3 million over the decade.

Meanwhile, as a percentage of all trips, transit rides increased by 25 percent, walking by 16 percent and bicycling by 13 percent. Even driving with a passenger went up 4 percent, while driving alone fell 9 percent. But counting all modes, the average trip lengthened from 6.5 miles in 2000 to 6.9 miles in 2010, and from 17 minutes to 22 minutes over the same period.

Despite the gains by other modes, driving still accounted for 84 percent of all trips in the Twin Cities and 90 percent of work commutes. Overall, walking had a 6 percent share, school bus 5 percent, transit 3 percent and bicycle 2 percent.

Concluding that this wide reported disparity warrants an equally unbalanced devotion of public resources to motoring – or even abandonment of funding for other modes, as urged by some conservatives – is a pervasive fallacy, however.

For example, some critics of walking and cycling claim that those activities are purely recreational, “with the implication that this is frivolous,” writes the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s Todd Litman in a recent Planetizen blog.

“Why should I … have to pay for someone else’s hobby?” thundered the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole Jr. in a critique of the developing U.S. Bicycle Route System. This ignores two key realities: 1) Two feet and two wheels are basic transportation for many Americans, especially those with low incomes. 2) A surprising amount of driving could be branded just as frivolous. In the Twin Cities, just 18 percent all trips, dominated by driving, are for work. More than twice as many, 40 percent, are for social and recreational purposes, according to the TBI.

“Critics assume that automobile trips that serve recreational purposes are important but walking and bicycling trips that serve the same purposes are not,” says Litman. “They value a car carrying passengers to walk or ride on a trail, or to a gym to pedal a stationary bike, but not people who walk or bike directly from their home. This is arbitrary, inefficient and unfair.”

But what if user fees for driving go for non-motorized facilities and transit? The Minnesota Constitution prohibits that, but about one-fifth of federal fuel taxes go for non-highway transportation, a “diversion” first signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Litman notes, however, that these investments also serve motorists by reducing traffic and parking congestion, easing chauffeuring burdens and cutting traffic accident risk.

On top of this, autocentrists ignore the huge and growing non-user subsidies for driving that have crept, largely unnoticed, into transportation’s fiscal regime. In fact, as I posted last week, the conservative Tax Foundation found that fees for driving in Minnesota cover less than a quarter of state and local road costs, less than users pay for any other mode.

But what about transit’s paltry mode share? An eye-opening blog from Light Rail Progress cast this in clearer light more than 10 years ago: In the TBI, as in most such calculations, transit’s percentage applies to an entire region “of which only a portion (often relatively small) is typically even in the transit agency’s service area. So transit is being disparaged for not carrying trips in places it doesn’t even serve!”

And why is that? “Overwhelming public promotion of motor vehicle travel,” LRP continued, citing more than $2 trillion in investment from the early 1920s to 2003 while “in almost every U.S. city, mass transit was given nothing, and allowed to dwindle … until about the mid-1970s.”

In short, the domination of our travel behavior by private motoring – enjoyed most by the wealthy and least by the poor, the TBI confirms – is hardly an outcome ordained either by God or the deified free market. Political and special-interest thumbs on the scale, along with driving’s natural attractiveness for those who can afford it, have made it so. But shifting preferences for where we live, how we work and socialize, and how we value our environment can and should move us in a different direction.

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  • Lynn Bakken says:

    December 13, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Wow…Conrad, while I certainly respect your right to spew, you really have consumed far too much of the Koolaid. Using the Metropolitan Council and Todd Litman as support for a well thought out position really diminish your feeble attempt at any semblance of credibility. Good luck.