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Multimodal urban transport: Todd Litman explains how and why

I interviewed the energetic Todd Litman, founder and Executive Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI). I am a great admirer of his work, most of which he generously shares on the VTPI website.

If you want less car-focused and more multi-modal transport planning, you'll benefit from Todd's clear explanations of the key problems with conventional urban transport planning, why we need multi-modal urban transport planning and how to get it.

Scroll down to read a summary (including links to relevant articles and reports by Todd). Or listen to the interview (Episode 3 of the Reinventing Transport podcast) with this player. If you can't see the player, click HERE to listen. If you like podcasts, please do subscribe using your favorite podcast app.   

The conversation covered these main topics (more details are below but the audio interview provides an even deeper dive into these issues):
  1. Multimodal versus conventional transport planning
  2. Comprehensive transportation analysis
  3. Congestion costs get exaggerated 
  4. Is multi-modal urban transport only for urban cores?
  5. One car-dependent city that is working hard to change

Multimodal versus biased conventional transport planning [1:40]

Multimodal planning (pdf) aims to redress a systematic bias in current transport planning, particularly in North America, in favor car-based transportation over other modes, that are more resource-efficient, more affordable, healthier and safer.

Examples from Todd:
  • Funding allocation tends to favor roadway improvement over spending to improve walking, bicycling or public transport.
  • Urban planning and urban development policies also often favor car dependent sprawl over more compact and infill development.
  • The usual ways of measuring the transportation system (pdf) are deeply misleading with their focus on vehicle traffic speeds and flow and motorist convenience, via the idea of roadway Level of Service (LOS). Such data often gives policymakers (especially in America) the impression that there's little need to invest resources in walking and bicycling. They create communities where it's difficult to get around without a car.
  • The high fixed costs of cars, compared with low marginal costs of driving each kilometer, prompt car owners to make economically inefficient decisions about how to make each trip. It seems foolish to leave your car at home when taking the bus feels more expensive (compared with the marginal cars costs - fuel costs and parking - that we notice at that moment). Shifting some costs from the fixed category to the variable one is one, limited, answer. More promising are policies to make it easier for households to choose lower car ownership.
Todd is enthusiastic about better ways of measuring transport, such as multimodal level-of-service indicator systems. In the past, cars facing LOS C on a stretch of roadway might prompt road expansion. But if,  on the same roadway, walking has LOS D and bicycling LOS E, it is easier to see that improving walking and cycling conditions might be a higher priority.

Comprehensive transportation analysis [11:05]

We discussed Todd's insistence that transport planning should consider all costs and benefits in a comprehensive way (pdf).

Todd argues that conventional evaluation of, say, which is cheaper, building and operating a train line versus expanding a highway, tends to miss important issues.

It is not only external costs like pollution that are often missed. Various private costs are also neglected, such as the costs of owning and using cars and of providing parking. These are simply assumed as a given, so the potential to reduce or avoid them is often ignored.

Systematic exaggeration of congestion costs [16:04]

This comprehensive view also helps Todd make the point that traffic congestion is almost always exaggerated as a problem (for example by the annual Texas Transportation Institute s' Urban Mobility Report, which he critiques regularly):
  • Most alarmism over congestion ignores negative feedback in the system. Congestion tends to reach equilibrium. If it gets bad enough, it discourages some peak period car trips. So traffic congestion can get bad but it then levels off. But, if you do expand the road you will get a significant amount of generated traffic additional peak period vehicle trips that would not otherwise occur. 
  • The travel time index (and variations of it), often used to measure congestion intensity, is biased. It measures how much slower you would go in peak periods compared with the same trip during off-peak periods. This obviously looks worst for large dense cities. But if you measure congestion based on per-capita congestion costs - taking into account both the intensity of congestion and also the number of peak-period car trips per person, it's the sprawled car dependent cities that have the highest congestion costs per person. And it is congestion costs not congestion intensity that matters most!
  • The baseline for measuring delay in the travel time index is free-flowing traffic, which is unrealistic anyway. Even worse, says Todd, in many cases the baseline they use is higher than the speed limit! 
  • Conventional studies also typically exaggerate congestion costs by using an excessive value of travel time, higher than the the 25-35% of average wages from by empirical studies. They're making congestion seem much more costly than what consumers would actually be willing to pay to avoid the delay.
  • Such studies typically also assume that congestion causes large increases in fuel consumption and pollution emissions. In fact, a moderate degree of congestion, such as reducing expressway speed from say 100 km/h to 60, actually reduces pollution emissions and fuel consumption!
Todd emphasizes that he is not saying roadways should never be expanded. But in many many
cases we are being misled by erroneous evaluations. There are often much more cost-effective solutions that are better for everyone.

Is a multi-modal urban transport vision only for downtowns and urban core areas? What about other places? [24:32]

Is multimodal transport planning relevant even for people who are currently happy living a car-dependent life? What's in it for them?

Todd is adamant that car-dependent residents of suburban and rural areas have every reason to
support more multimodal planning and more comprehensive analysis. He offers several examples:
  • Bumper stickers saying "Mom and Dad's taxi service" are cute but this is a serious issue. The burden of chauffering children or seniors (pdf) is as significant (in terms of time) as traffic congestion in automobile dependent areas. Children's independent mobility has plummeted in North America. Todd mentions that the proportion of children walking or cycling to school has dropped from 80% when he was a kid to about 20% now. 
  • Even if you can afford to own a personal car and you are physically able to drive right now, there's a chance that things will change sometime in the future. In five or ten or twenty years, you or a loved one may be dependent on wheelchairs or on walking or on public transportation. 
  • So it is partly self-interest that should prompt motorists to support better options, both to reduce their chauffeuring burdens and in preparation for their own possible future. 
  • Affordability is another reason. For many households, particularly low-income households, being able to get around without a car is a great increase in their economic freedom and in reducing financial stress. Reduced dependence on cars can also open greater options even for middle-income income household, for example by opening the choice for one parent to become a full-time stay-at-home parent.

Can you point to a relatively car-dependent city that is turning things around? [32:14]

Todd points to Seattle as a somewhat surprising leader.

Seattle has invested in rail transit but, equally importantly, it has made numerous incremental improvements to the bus system, to the point that bus travel is often attractive to middle-income people. This is quite a breakthrough for North American cities. As a result, total transit ridership has increased significantly in the last decade.

Traffic accident rates have declined too. Todd sees this as a validation of his research on safety, which argues that safety benefits enormously from improving travel options and reducing dependence on cars, particularly for the high-risk travelers.

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