Out of Control Policy Blog

To the Senate: Why travel has become more complex

On Jun 25th, I testified on the future role of federal transportation policy before the U.S. Senate Committee on Envirnonment and Public Works. All the written testimony can be found here. I was pleasantly surprised at the cordial atmosphere creative by the chair, Sen. Barabara Boxer, and several senators followed up with specific questions based on my written testimony. Here is a question from Delaware Sen. Thomas Carper and my response:

1. In your testimony, you said that 62% of trips on our roadways are for non-work purposes, including shopping or family business. You also stated that our travel patterns have become more complex. But people have been going to the grocery, clothing stores, schools, the post office, etc. for a very long time. Why has travel to these necessities become so complex? Shouldn't our transportation policy strive to make running basic errands simpler?

The automobile has allowed us to greatly expand the geographic area within which we can access different services, products and even friends. A 15-minute trip (one way) by foot allows us access to stores, services and friends within one mile. A 15-minute trip by car can give us access to a myriad of services within 5-10 miles. It's not the services themselves we access, but the variety of services and our ability, as consumers, to promote the diversity of services and products. This is what has added to the complexity of our travel patterns. It's not that we have access to a grocery store; it's that we have access to several grocery stores and we can choose the one that suits our wants most effectively. Grocery stores, and other services and even employers, are forced to compete with one another based on price, product selection and shopping experience, all of which benefits consumers.

This broadening and diversification of choice has been influenced by three fundamental changes in technology and our economy.
1. Technology: The widespread adoption of the automobile has given us access to a much wider variety of goods and services and has allowed individual travelers to customize trips to fit their needs. Travel is not as time intensive as it once was, and it is not tied to fixed incomes and routes through public transit, allowing us to do more in a shorter amount of time. By exploiting technology, we have created a larger and more competitive marketplace for the services and things we value, whether it is having greater access to day care, to meeting with friends and family outside of our immediate neighborhood, or visiting the doctor or dentist that we prefer.
2. Economics 1: The rise of two-income families has meant that residential choice involves a trade-off between different home and work preferences within a household. When families were dominated by one primary income earner who commuted to work, choosing a residential location was simple: move to a home (or neighborhood) within an accessible distance from work. Now, families often choose neighborhoods based on the quality of schools, the scheduling flexibility and requirements of two jobs, and neighborhood quality.
3. Economics 2: Services-based economies tend to be more flexible and malleable to individual and family needs. Unlike factory work, which tends to organize labor around shifts or the assembly line, service industries tend to be more flexible with schedules and output. Thus, a manager or saleswoman has much more influence over his or her daily schedule. This is likely to become even more true as telecommuting and outcome-based work becomes more common. Workers will customize their work schedule to conform to personal and family needs, making travel patterns even more complex. Even now, telecommuters outnumber public transit riders in half of the US's largest urban areas.

Greater household wealth and flexible transportation technologies enable a much greater degree of trip chaining (linking multiple destinations in one trip) and choice over when and where we travel than in previous generations.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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