Trendlines: The Rhetoric of Convenience

Y u no go up and right?

 

Population projections are always fun.  They’re even more fun when they’re used to justify endless highway expansion, the continuation of a status quo, and deepening municipal debt, all for the sake of hypothetical future people.  They’re even more fun when they assume life in 2035, when DFW region will apparently be home to 11 million people, will exist exactly as it does now.  Because technology doesn’t advance much in 20 year span.  My droid apps in 1994 were killer.  There wasn’t even DART in 1994.

But alas, the population is growing now at a current rate and therefore it will grow in perpetuity forever, which seems like sound fiscal policy.  We very well might hit 11 million by 2035, but it to base transportation policy based on current levels of car-dependence is a recipe for wide-scale municipal default (if not statewide).  The fact of the matter is that building for cars is incredibly expensive for the public sector, disperses tax base into low densities not enough to support the legacy costs of said infrastructure, and reduces the adaptability and choice of the marketplace — how they choose to get around and participate in the local economy.  The only way is for everybody to have their own car, which is incredibly regressive and punitive on the young, the poor, and the elderly.  It borders on inhumane, which should suggest some degree of unsustainability.

However, the point remains that we’re at 6.8 million in the metro now and will be at 11 million by 2035 therefore we absolutely must increase highway capacity by at least a similar rate or else we will all be eaten alive by wild hyenas roaming the highways as we’re stuck in highway congestion (which never really seems to take into account the problem being created BY the highways in the first place and the inherent fragility and unadaptability built into car-dependence — see:  Atlanta’s ice-mageddon or whatever they call it).  At the same population density (which we can assume if we’ll be driving at the exact same rates since we’re basing our highway needs on those), we’ll need 15,000 square miles, or FIVE times the size of metropolitan London, which we will still have less people than.

Let’s play a game then, if we’re following trend lines continually up and to the right.  How much will DFW residents be driving in 2035 based on current trends?  Well, according to Texas Transportation Institute, DFW averaged 13.26 miles driven per person per day in 2006.  That number has since fallen to 11.90.  Wha?!  How could that be?  All of our driving models show VMT going up (and therefore we base transportation funding and policy on said models).  They couldn’t possibly be wrong.  What is wrong is people. Who change and adapt and live and do things differently based on their time and circumstances which also change unlike our models which are exquisite and perfect and say we need moar damn highways.

If we’re dropping VMT per capita by 32% every 5 years certainly that trend line will continue for ever and ever.  If it keeps dropping by 32% every 5 years, the average DFW resident will be driving 1.37 miles per day, about half as much as the average current New York City metro resident.  Sounds ridiculous right?  Maybe because basing policy on certain trend lines, the status quo, and the assumption that everything is perfect as is (despite the fear-mongering rhetoric about traffic nightmares – which again is a by-product of highways, cars, and 96% modal share dominated by car trips metro-wide – WHICH WILL BE THE SAME IN 2035 I GUARANTEE IT).

Guess what?  TTI’s congestion costs for DFW (despite how flawed that metric is – but alas people pay attention to it) have also been dropping.  Like VMT, our congestion costs peaked in 2006 at $1414 per driver and have since dropped to $957 by 2011.  At that trend, our congestion costs in 2035 in DFW will be down to $138 per person.  WOOHOO!

In other words, if we’re following all of these trendlines on into the future, we will be the least car-dependent city in the country.  Double WOOHOO!  Do we think that will be the case if we double down on highway spending?

But gas is cheaper and therefore we’ll start driving again at past rates even if that means the Texas economy is crushed by said low oil and gas prices…oh wait this starts to sound like a really bad downward death spiral.

Or, alternatively we can focus on building a better, more livable, more vibrant, more resilient, more just city for all of our residents.  And one that is actually on sound financial footing without mortgaging the future (and projected future growth) on 20th century thinking and antiquated policies.

 

Comments

  • UpTn DallasSocial

    It is my considered opinion that by 2035, most folks won’t own their own car. Instead, they will own a car “service”, which will consist of computerized vehicles that drive themselves. If and when we need to travel, we will simply ask for a car on whatever iteration of communication device we will be using, the vehicle will arrive, and convay us to our destination. Most of us will no longer be “drivers”. We will be “riders”. That in itself will profoundly change the picture of transportation throughout the world.

  • Michael Andersen

    Here’s my perspective from a very different, but also fast-growing, metropolis: Portland OR.

    I don’t disagree with this or anything but I think there needs to be a more serious grappling than I have yet seen in the anti-road-capacity community with the effects on housing costs.

    I don’t think it’s ethical to reduce road capacity unless you’re also seeing proportional increases in housing supply close to jobs and/or job supply close to housing.

    The long-term effect of reducing road capacity in a metro area (or of limiting it in a growing one) is to drive up residential values that are close to jobs and commercial land values that are close to residences. This can be good, because it’s the only way to create cities that are dense enough to be relatively friendly to both our environment and to people in poverty.

    But if your nongrowing city is reducing road capacity (or if your growing city is not increasing road capacity) then you had better be seeing the housing supply in job-rich areas rising fast enough to forstall substantial rent increases in those areas. If you are not seeing this — maybe due to regulations that require yards or separated walls or height maximums or parking, or maybe due to a sticky financing market, or maybe due to fear of NIMBY lawsuits, or maybe (I hate to say it) due to renter protections that have cut too far into landlord profits — then the costs of lost mobility (which are real) are falling on poor workers and their families. That’s not OK.