Traffic Safety Administration preparing for robot cars

David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told an industry gathering sponsored by Swedish automaker Volvo and the Swedish Embassy in Washington,

“Automated vehicles offer an important and challenging method for reducing crash risk that we believes holds great promise,” Strickland said. He noted that human error was a factor in about 90 percent of the over 33,000 traffic deaths recorded in 2010. “We have the chance of … saving thousands and thousands of lives as” cars in use today are replaced with automated vehicles, he said.

Another interesting bit:

He declined to say when the government might propose safety standards for automated cars. Setting such standards would require the government to fundamentally rethink the way it evaluates auto safety, he said.

“We may have to depend on modeling and simulation of detailed traffic interactions that lead to crashes as opposed to the typical crash-testing model that we’ve used … over the past 40 years,” Strickland said.

Key questions will be whether the software in automated cars will be able to handle complicated driving situations and whether there will always need to be a human driver paying attention and ready to step in.

Also check out this story about Nissan implementing semi-robot cars without drivers even knowing about it.  There will soon be a camera and computer controlling some motors in between the steering wheel you hold and the actual steering column.

A generational shift in driving?

Sightline Daily looks at two data points from the National Household Transportation Survey:

Among older folks, driving didn’t change that much between the two studies. But among younger Americans, driving habits changed radically: folks between the ages of 20 and 40 drove far less in 2008 than their counterparts did in 2001.

This is perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence I’ve seen suggesting that there’s been a profound generational shift in America’s driving habits.

That doesn’t exhaust the analysis, of course. Some portion of this trend may be simple economics: the recession of 2008 may have hit younger folks a bit harder than the recession of 2001. (The fact that both surveys were taken in the midst of a recession was just pure dumb luck.) And there are still all sorts of questions about what’s at the root of this trend: is it young folks substituting life online for life behind the wheel?  Environmental concerns dampening their enthusiasm for cars? More young people choosing to live car-lite city lifestyles? I’m sure there are dozens of theories out there, and probably many that have a grain of truth.

And then there’s the anomaly of 50-54 year olds, who looked more like 30-somethings than 50 or 60 year olds. Is that just a data glitch, or a real trend?

Regardless, the evidence is pretty compelling for a broad generational shift:  on average, folks under 40 are driving less than their counterparts from previous years. And if that trend keeps up, it will mean less and less driving per capita, as today’s low-mileage 20- and 30-somethings hit their peak driving years.

I’d say the 2008 recession did hit young people harder, as youth employment is at an all-time low.  Minnesota may have hit “peak travel” in 2004.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge

David Levinson (The Transportationist) on the proposed Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin:

I think building a four lane bridge to replace a two lane bridge does not fully count as “preservation”, but rather as “expansion”. Given the state of the network, and the need to give priority to preservation, a four lane bridge violates that principal. As to whether a four lane bridge passes a B/C test, or better yet, a market test of whether a private firm would build it, the answer is clearly no. This four-lane bridge would not have enough demand to pay the tolls required to fund it. That should tell you something about its true necessity. The Franken article cited above suggested Wisconsin wasn’t interested in funding it. Since the majority of benefits for the bridge accrue to Wisconsin land owners, it makes no sense for Minnesota to lead on this.


TTI’s Urban Mobility Report Is Still Only About Mobility


Evaluating land use and transportation policies in terms of accessibility rather than mobility is the goal of many planners and advocates, whether they know the terminology or not.  This new focus requires recognizing the interconnectedness of land use and transportation decisions.

Unfortunately, one of the most influential voices in transportation research and policy has not yet made these changes.  From Greater Greater Washington (via Market Urbanism):

The Texas Transportation Institute today released the final version of their report on congestion, which ranks the DC area tied for first with Chicago in hours wasted in traffic. Unfortunately, the report’s methodology completely misleads as to the seriousness of traffic, and TTI is pushing the wrong policy solutions.

The TTI report narrowly looks at only one factor: how fast traffic moves. Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn’t bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city is more congested? By TTI’s methods, it’s Denseopolis. But it’s the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

Sadly, despite CEOs for Cities pointing out these methodological problems last year, TTI went ahead and finalized its report without fixing them (PDFs). TTI ranks Portland as worse than Nashville, with a Travel Time Index (TTI) of 1.23 1.15 for Nashville and 1.151.23 for Portland. However, because of greater sprawl, Nashville commuters spend an average of 268 hours per year commuting, while the average Portland commuter spends 193 hours per year.

What does this mean for public policy and the Washington region? TTI’s data is often used to justify spending money on new freeway capacity, since congestion sounds bad. TTI even promotes this approach. Tim Lomax, a co-author of the report, told the Post’s Ashley Halsey III, “You can do little things like stagger work hours, fix traffic-light timing and clear wrecks faster, but in the end, there’s a need for more capacity.”

In some sense, we shouldn’t be surprised, since the report is titled the Urban Mobility Report.  However, the goal of commentators and the CEOs For Cities report is to call attention to the fact that mobility (or level of congestion) alone is not an adequate means of measuring the performance of our land use and transportation systems.

US Road Funding From Non-Users At All Time High

According to a new report by Subsidy Scope from the Pew Charitable Trusts, user fees for the construction and maintenance of US highways were at an all time low in 2007.  In other words, fees from non-users are at an all time high ($70 billion).  In 2007, 51% of funds for construction and maintenance was generated from user fees, down from 71 percent 40 years ago.  User fees include the gas tax, while non-user fees are things like bonds from local governments and sales and property taxes.

The main causes of this change according to Subsidy Scope?  No increase in the federal gas tax since 1993 and an increasing reliance on state and local governments to pay for roads.  People also drive less as fuel prices increase.  No mention of increasing use of alternative fuel vehicles, but surely that will play an increasing role in revenue declines in the future.

In contrast, I think 25% of transit’s costs are paid through user fees, although please correct me if I’m wrong.  Here is some data to wade through if you’re interested.  It should also be noted that both of these percentages include only internalized costs of roads and transit, not externalized (non-monetized) societal costs (pollution, congestion, etc).

Waxman ousts Dingell for chairmanship – climate change solved?

Rep. Waxman

A long-time advocate of the US auto industry and sometime climate change-lover John D. Dingell was ousted from the charimanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.  While this is possibly good news for new environmental legislation, it may signal more bad news for the Detroit-based auto industry.  Something big will likely happen given the “change” mantra sweeping Washington, and as this is one important charimanship, according to NYT:

Many lawmakers and lobbyists consider the Energy and Commerce Committee to be the most influential panel in either house of Congress, one that handles, by some estimates, all or parts of two-thirds of the legislation moving through the House. Three committees in the Senate share jurisdiction over bills relating to energy, environment and commerce, all of which pass through the single House committee.

Outside the committee room is a huge NASA photograph of Earth taken from space. Mr. Dingell is fond of pointing to it in answer to questions about his committee’s jurisdiction.

California helps consumers buy green cars. If only we had these for houses…

California Pollution Label

From Autopia:

The California Air Resources Board is making it easier to identify “greener” cars by requiring new vehicles to display window stickers indicating how much smog-forming and global warming pollution the car produces. The label will note the vehicle’s “smog score” and “global warming score” on a 10-point scale, with cleaner cars getting higher scores.

Miles per gallon is only a measure of efficiency (and not a very good one apparently), which a consumer needs to make an informed choice, but it doesn’t tell the whole pollution story.  After all, motorcycles get great gas mileage