U.S. Senators Target Mobility in Transportation Policy Reforms

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), chair of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation introduced the Surface Transportation Policy and Planning Act of 2009 on Thursday May 14th. The most notable feature is setting a goal to reduce something transportation policy should promote: mobility.

According to the press release from the Committee, here are the major goals:

Major Goals of The Federal Surface Transportation Policy and Planning Act of 2009
• Reduce national per capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis;
• Reduce national motor vehicle-related fatalities by 50 percent by 2030;
• Reduce national surface transportation-generated carbon dioxide levels by 40 percent by 2030;
• Reduce national surface transportation delays per capita on an annual basis;
• Increase the percentage of system-critical surface transportation assets that are in a state of good repair by 20 percent by 2030;
• Increase the total usage of public transportation, intercity passenger rail services, and non-motorized transportation on an annual basis;
• Increase the proportion of national freight transportation provided by non-highway or
multimodal services by 10 percent by 2020; and
• Reduce passenger and freight transportation delays and congestion at international points of entry on an annual basis.

Most of these goals are laudable. Few would argue that we shouild reduce vehicle-related fatalities, travel delay, or even carbon dioxide emissions. Many even believe increasing transit use (in total if not share of travel) is a worthy goal.

The most problematic goal, and perhaps the most salient, is the first one: reducing per capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis. This is the equivalent to saying transportation policy should have as a conscious goal reducing mobility and use of the transportation network.

More importantly, the only way this goal can be accomplished is by adopting dramatic and draconian policies that severely limit housing choice and personal mobility. As planning and automobile critics correctly point out, our low-density life style choices imply that automobility is the most efficient and effective way to get from point A to point B. (Although, as Adrian Moore and I note in Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century, automobility is also the preferred transportation choice for large swaths of our urban populations.) The only way that we can reduce reliance on the automobile is to move dramatically away from low density life styles.

To maintain access to non-automobile transportation–mass transit–large segments of the American public would have to live within walking distance of a transit stop (and most likely a rail stop to meet emissions targets).

In effect, this would banish single-family detached housing from the choices of low income, low income, and large sections of the middle class. Most people, to maintain access to transportation, would have to live in row houses, town houses, two or three floor “walk ups,” or apartment buildings.

It’s notable that the Senators include reducing driving as an explicit goal. Meeting the emissions targets for transportation is eminently possible over the next 30 years through improvements in technology by moving to hybrid, electric, and other technologies to power vehicles. It’s clear anti-car advocates have seized on the transportation planning process as a way to micromanage lifestyle choices and feel unencumbered by the need to focus on transportation policy per se.

Unfortunately, like most restrictive growth-management policies, it’s the lower-income groups that will have to shoulder the brunt and burden of these policies.

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.