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Moving People or Vehicles: How Do We Grade our Roads?

Whose streets work better: Atlanta or Chicago? According to the most common assessment tool for congestion — the Travel Time Index (TTI) — the answer is Atlanta.

The average trip to work in Atlanta takes 57.4 minutes, while the typical commuter in Chicago spends 35.6 minutes getting to the office. So it seems like the Windy City would be rated higher, right? Well, no. The TTI gives more credit to speed than travel time and destination proximity. Atlanta looks better because their commuters drive faster over a farther distance, even though their trips take longer on average. This example, highlighted in a recent memo from Transportation for America, reveals the challenges and limitations of our current thinking about transportation performance. And, unfortunately, this isn’t just an academic problem.

The new federal transportation bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), does two things that bring urgency to getting this right:

  1. Under the law, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) will set up Performance Measures for its largest program, the $22 billion National Highway Performance Program, that will ultimately reward and penalize states for reaching or failing to meet these targets, and
  2. The law expands the scope of the National Highway System by 60,000 new lane miles; now it will include many roads (primary arterials) that don’t feel like highways at all.

So, unless the performance measures are set appropriately, state DOTs will treat many roads that cut through neighborhoods essentially the same way they treat interstate highways: prioritizing speed over other factors. Which roads will that affect in your state? You can find the primary arterial routes that will be added to the NHS in here.

Should the performance of this road…

…be measured like this one?

Under the new National Highway Performance Program, the performance of these two roads could be measured the same way. One is a bustling business district, the other is an Interstate highway. (Example provided by Transportation for America.)

Fortunately, the USDOT appears to recognize the challenge before it. In September, the DOT solicited input through an online dialogue, where the public contributed and voted on ideas for these performance measures.

The number one ranked idea for Highway System Performance: Performance measures should be defined and measured in ways that reflect all of the benefits of an integrated, comprehensive system based on the movement of people, not vehicles.” One of the most popular ideas for Congestion Mitigation: “Performance measures should emphasize spatial and temporal dimensions of congestion (translation: the measure should consider trip time, as well as distance traveled). Both suggestions would encourage communities to build infrastructure that helps people get where they are going rather than travel the greatest distance possible at the highest speeds possible.

In fact, the DOT received so much feedback that it hosted a listening session late last month. During the session, officials acknowledged the need to address issues like “vehicle vs. passenger movement,” and there was considerable discussion about how to measure people on foot and on bicycle. In the League’s recommendations to DOT, we identified Regional Household Travel Surveys, infrared counters, and traditional bike/ped counts, as possible tools, and pointed to states like Massachusetts, which is setting mode-shift goals as part of its transportation performance measures. We also passed along some of the on-going research into bicycling and walking measurement.

It is good that this dialog is taking place, but we’ll be watching carefully to see what comes out these discussions. Whatever gets put into place now will likely influence transportation decision-making for years to come, so it’s critically important to keep the focus on moving people, not vehicles.

To learn more about what bicycling and walking advocates are doing to get the most out of the new transportation bill, check out our “Navigating MAP-21” resources. And please join us for our webinar on the recently-released interim guidance on the Transportation Alternatives program on Wednesday.


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