Transportation needs are changing, but gas price isn’t the major factor, think tank says

By Eric Sundquist

Gasoline makes headlines when it reaches $4 per gallon, but this price benchmark has less affect on travel behavior than many assume, according to a new white paper by The Mobility Collaborative.

The paper supports a recent SSTI analysis that also cast doubt on the power of gas prices to affect travel demand. VMT growth has flattened in recent years, but that trend correlates more strongly with re-densification of urbanized areas than with fuel prices.

The Mobility Collaborative, a new Arlington, Va.-based think tank with members from industry, government, and academia, specifically addressed the perception that $4 gas signals a tipping point away from single-occupancy vehicle travel:

At $4, or likely any other specific price point, there is not a sustained, en masse, shift away from SOV travel to other travel options. This appears to be an urban myth that is doing a disservice to the industry, similar to the “rural myth” or the “weekend myth,” where actual behavior does not match predictions. (In all U.S. regions, overall traffic in rural areas and traffic in urban areas on weekends has either declined or grown much more slowly than projected.)

The paper argues that even if there is no fuel-price-driven tipping point, change is still essential.

Both the transportation choices people make must change and the way that our cities are shaped and developed must change. Our current mix of land use, vehicle and transportation options may not be able to sustain an increasing population.

That change could come either in incremental moves toward more efficiency or as a more a sweeping paradigm shift. The paper describes the actions of transportation infrastructure providers under both scenarios.

Incremental change:

The infrastructure required to support and advance a car-oriented society continues to receive the lion-share of investment. Government grants are awarded to projects that focus on quick, short-term job growth by fixing deteriorating roads and bridges. Conversely, projects that focus on long-term, infrastructure, developmental initiatives, and programs to support a car-free lifestyle (more walkable communities, trains, buses, HOV facilities, etc.) receive lower levels of funding. New developments have plentiful and inexpensive parking, making taking a car easy and convenient.

Paradigm shift:

Agencies focus on the experience of public transportation and create an environment that is more appealing than that offered by SOV travel. The experience associated with using public transportation is less stressful and more pleasant than using a SOV. At the same time, public parking is priced to achieve 85 percent occupancy, and money raised from parking is reinvested in transportation improvements.

A concerted effort is made to advance transit-oriented development modeled after Arlington County, Virginia; New York, New York; Stockholm, Sweden; Paris, France; Bremen Germany; Toronto, Canada; and Hong Kong, China, where urban villages are created within major metropolitan areas. These developments satisfy the housing, educational and other needs of all demographic groups. The related infrastructure and developments make a car-free lifestyle possible and desirable. It is easier and less expensive to use something other than a car to get around.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director at SSTI. He can be reached at Erics@ssti.us.