Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Road…Less Traveled

The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program recently released a report on changing driving patterns in the US , focussing on the years 1991 to 2008.

An analysis at the national, state, and metropolitan levels of changing driving patterns, measured by Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) primarily between 1991 and 2008, reveals that:

Driving, as measured by national VMT, began to plateau as far back as 2004 and dropped in 2007 for the first time since 1980. Per capita driving followed a similar pattern, with flat-lining growth after 2000 and falling rates since 2005. These recent declines in driving predated the steady hikes in gas prices during 2007 and 2008. Moreover, the recent drops in VMT (90 billion miles) and VMT per capita (388 miles) are the largest annualized drops since World War II. 

While total driving in both rural and urban areas grew between January 1991 and September 2008, rural and urban VMT have been declining since 2004 and 2007, respectively. Amongst these collective driving declines, the nation shifted more of its VMT share to larger capacity, urban roadways.

While all vehicle types increased their total driving from 1991 to 2006, passenger vehicles—specifically cars and personal trucks—consistently dominate the national share. This share dominance includes rural interstates, where combination trucks contribute a much larger share than they do elsewhere. Over time, however, passenger trucks produce a greater share of VMT due to their surge in registrations versus standard passenger cars. 

Southeastern and Intermountain West states experienced the largest growth rates in driving between 1991 and 2006, while the Great Lakes, Northeastern, and Pacific states grew at a slower pace. These varied, but positive, growth rates reversed after 2006, as 45 states produced less annualized VMT in September 2008. Similarly, per capita driving declined in 48 states since the end of 2006. 

Total driving on principal arterials is concentrated in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, but the greatest driving per person occurs in low density Southeastern and Southwestern metros.In addition, the 100 largest metros’ urban driving share exceeds the national share, with 83 metros carrying over 70 percent of their principal arterial traffic on urban roadways. 

Amid the current recession and declining gas prices, drops in driving should continue, creating dramatic impacts in the realms of transportation finance, environmental emissions, and development patterns. Government officials and policy makers at all levels must account for these potential long-term consequences.

CLICK HERE for the full PDF report “The Road Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) Trends in the US” by Robert Puentes and Ari Tomer

Results from American Institute of Architects Quarterly Home Design Survey

Slowdown Sees Established Community Design Trends Giving Way to Infill Locations and Homes with Simpler Features
Business activity for residential architects continues to plummet, particularly in Sunbelt regions

by Kermit Baker, PhD, Hon. AIA
Chief Economist

Summary: The housing downturn is reshaping households’ preferences for the design of their neighborhoods and communities. Infill locations are growing in popularity, while exurban subdivisions—even with the opportunities they offer for recreational opportunities, open space, and more fully developed community plans—are losing ground because of their lack of access to public transportation and commercial services. Porches remain a popular feature in home styles, as they often evoke times with greater neighborhood interaction. Households are generally looking for simpler exteriors, with durability a critical concern.

HERE’S THE LINK TO THE FULL STORY – The titles for the various graphs speak volumes…

Newsweek: Is the Mall Dead?

From piece by Tony Dokoupil for Newsweek Online (link for whole story):

Who needs a charming downtown when you can have this...

Who needs a charming downtown when you can have this...


Last year was the first in half a century that a new indoor mall didn’t open somewhere in the country—a precipitous decline since the mid-1990s when they rose at a rate of 140 a year, according to Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, coauthor of the forthcoming book “Retrofitting Suburbia,” which focuses on the decline of malls and other commercial strips. Today, nearly a fifth of the country’s largest 2,000 regional malls are failing, she says, and according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, and a record 150,000 retail outlets, including such mall mainstays as the Gap and Foot Locker, will close this year. Xanadu, whose officials declined NEWSWEEK’s requests for comment, has named just nine tenants for its 200 spaces.

Smart Growth in NY Times and Wash Post Op-Eds

From David Brooks piece in the NY Times (link to full story):

If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers.

People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend…

If, indeed, we are going to have a once-in-a-half-century infrastructure investment, it would be great if the program would build on today’s emerging patterns. It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now.

From the Wash Post Editorial Board’s piece “Invest in Mass Transit” (link to full story):

Lawmakers should give priority to projects that are environmentally friendly and that encourage smart growth. They also should adjust the federal government’s disbursement formula to direct more money to mass transit and to other projects in underserved metropolitan areas.

Good News and Bad News About Old Transit

Los Angeles has a notoriously terrible transit system, which of course makes sense when you think about it.  The city was literally designed around automobile transportation – one of its most iconic images is the freeway system itself.  The Metrolink, which is the Los Angeles area commuter rail, is the 7th largest in the nation, in terms of its ridership, but it has been neglected and underfunded almost from its start, 17 years ago.  Perhaps as a result, Metrolink is the deadliest commuter rail system in the country.  With a dearth of safety measures in place, two horrific accidents have occurred in the last decade, and little was done to rectify the problems facing the system.  That’s the bad news.  

The good news is that on election day, a sales tax measure was approved by the voters, and the expected $1.2 Billion in revenues will be channelled to the Metrolink system.  This will allow for improved safety measures and network expansion.  It shouldn’t take a label like “deadliest in the nation” for lawmakers to seek out ways to fund transit safety.  Transit can be extremely safe, when attended to properly.  

Here are some statistics on transportation safety from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Overall, trains and light rail are undeniably safer than automobiles, by a HUGE margin.  Highway deaths in 2006 numbered 42,642.  Railroad deaths were 911, and Transit deaths were 213.  That is a margin of more than 40 to 1.  AND if you read the footnotes, you’ll notice that the totals for Rail and Transit are inflated because they include deaths not related to in service transportation, which is not the case for the numbers of automobile deaths.

I hope that as we move forward in infrastructure planning, both as a region and as a nation, money is not only spent on roads and on bridges, but on expanding the transit options available to all of us.

James Howard Kunstler @

James Howard Kunstler’s commentary on suburbia is always colorful (and insightful) and definitely worth a listen.  The video is about 20 minutes and the quality is better than the thumbnail here might look.  This clip came from YouTube, but I first saw the talk at The site is a repository of talks from an annual conference first held in 1984 covering an incredibly broad range of topics and featuring plenty of interesting presenters.