Commentary

Travel Up in April as Economy Levels Off

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has released its monthly estimate of travel in the U.S., and travel demand, measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), is up 1.2 percent over last year. While cumulative travel–the amount of travel in 2010 to date–is still down from 2009, travel seems to be picking up steam as the economy appears to have troughed.

The moving 12 month average peaked in 2008 at 3.024 billion vihicle miles traveled (although it had largely leveled off around 2006), fell to under 2.952 billion in 2009 largely because of the economy, and is now picking up speed after two consecutive months of positive VMT growth (see Table 1).

The implications for transportation policy are significant. The U.S. DOT has demoted congestion reduction as a key goal in its strategic plan. Compare the 2006-2011 plan prepared under Secretary Mary Peters with the current 2010 draft plan under Secretary Ray LaHood. While the current plan puts justifiable emphasis on freight movement as part of its economic competitiveness goal, it ignores the role of passenger vehicle traffic and the broader problem of congestion.

More problematic is the DOT draft strategic plan emphasizes “livability”–as if traffic congestion is not a livability issue–and almost exclusively focus on improving pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit choices and travel to the exclusion of automobiles. This is problematic because the bulk of the increased travel in March and April is VMT on urban arterials–the very roads that must be shared with pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit buses. In short, the current plan is a recipe for rising traffic congestion.

Stay tuned.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.