Episode 34 – Safety and Funding

Topics: Safety, Funding

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Episode 34 – Safety and Funding

Warning, this episode is rated O for extremely opinionated and P for political. If you don’t want to hear my somewhat strident opinions on approaches to safety and funding, maybe you better tune in next time, but please stay for the announcements before viciously turning me off.


For those of you in the know, I don’t have to tell you that Dragon*Con is coming up in a few weeks. For those of you *not* in the know, Dragon*Con is…well, let me just quote from teh website at Dragoncon.org: “Dragon*Con is the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe!”

While the organizers might be guilty of a bit of hyperbole, it still a huge convention with tracks, panels, and activities for almost everyone. My wife and I go every year and have a blast. Why am I telling you this? Because I’ll be there in full podcasting regalia and if you find me, I’ll be happy to talk to you on record about traffic and transportation. I’m planning on snagging plenty of audio because the attendees at Dragon*Con are a cross section of humanity with diverse people from around the country, and a lot of them like to talk. So, if you want to be one of those people, drop me a line. The email address is bill at talkingtraffic dot org. We’ll also be recording for our other podcast, the Amateur Multisport Podcast, so if you want to talk about that, too, we’re all ears…or microphones.

Seriously, if you’ve never seen dragon*con, it’s a sight to behold. If you’re in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, you should at least come down to Peachtree Street between Andrew Young International Blvd and Baker street for the 10:00 AM dragon*con parade. As I said, it’s a sight to see.

Okay, I’m done plugging Dragon*con. Now on with the topic at hand which is…Safety! Safety and Funding, all intertwined in their ugly reality.

I read many blogs about transportation and traffic issues. One of them is called Streetsblog.net. They recently had a post entitled “Why isn’t Traffic Reduction a Top Public Health Concern” which cited a blog called Greater Greater Washington.org wherein Ken Archer authored a post called “Traffic Reduction: An urgent public health Priority”.

As an aside, and only for those of you who don’t regularly read blogs, the blogosphere tends to be very inbred in its link-to-this-post with a bit of commentary on it. Sometimes it can take four or five levels of drill-down to get to the original quoted posting.

Anyway, back to the topic. Ken Archer makes the case that the World Health Organization and the CDC and all governments in America from the biggest to the smallest are missing the point. Instead of addressing Traffic Safety improvements as their main focus, they should also be addressing traffic volumes. His point is this, no matter how much the *rate* of traffic fatalities decreases if traffic volumes don’t decrease as well, then the *absolute* number of people who die will remain the same or increase. Remember the fatal rate is typically measured as the number of people killed per 100 million vehicle miles. So if I reduce my rate of people killed from 1 per 100 million vehicles miles to 0.9, but my traffic increases and causes next year to have 111 million vehicle miles, then the same number of people have died, exactly one. Also remember that this is an example: 2008’s national vehicle miles was 2.97 TRILLION.

So, Ken’s point is that we have to reduce the total vehicle miles traveled in order to save lives. And he has a good point! The less people drive, the fewer people will die.

However, when I first read his article, I started scratching my head trying to see if he really did have a point. Yes, reducing the vehicle miles traveled will reduce the absolute number of people killed, assuming the fatality rate remains the same. Yes, this is a good thing, but what are the costs?

One thing we (and by we, I mean transportation planners, designers, traffic engineers and policy makers), one thing we have to do is weigh benefits and costs. I’m not going to get into some of deeper details of benefit/cost calculations for you here, not because I don’t think you could understand it but because I think that YOU would think it’s boring. These benefit/cost analyses are important because, as I’ve been harping on for several podcasts now, the funding is just not there for everything. We can’t do everything possible to save lives. It would be nice if we could, but we can’t and that’s just reality. What we can do is make choices and try to get the best bang for our buck and stretch those dollars as far as possible. However, those dollars will shrink even faster if we reduce our vehicle miles traveled because, again as I’ve discussed in Episode 26 of this podcast, transportation funding depends on fuel taxes. If people drive less, and people *are* driving less and driving more fuel efficient vehicles to boot, then fewer taxes come in to help fund safety improvements… This may sound like a shortsighted opinion, and I’ll even acknowledge that it *is* shortsighted, but we have to have some solutions in place to maintain and replace our existing infrastructure before we can talk about cutting the funding that is taking care of it right now.

Ok, so what have I just done here: I’ve basically put a price on the human life, equating the 37,000 people who died in 2008 as the cost of maintaining our Nation’s Infrastructure. My god, what a callous thing to say. Well, not really. I’m saying that, in my opinion, approaching the problem from the position that by reducing vehicle miles traveled is more important (or even AS important) as reducing collisions through safety improvements, driver education and enforcement is not the way to go. For one thing, Vehicle Miles Traveled isn’t a causal factor in traffic collisions. It’s a corollary and as any statistician will state, Correlation does not Imply Causation. For another, it will be much less expensive to the nation as a whole (again, this is my opinion) to focus on engineering and automotive safety improvements, education and police presence.

One of the issues I have with Ken’s position is that transportation solutions and policies cannot be applied in all places the same way. His approach may well work and work spectacularly inside dense urban centers. NYC published a study (and Ken cited it) showing that NY was one of the safest places for children because of the lower incidence of accidental death due to transportation fatalities*. However, that approach will probably not work in Newry, ME where the majority of traffic goes through the town and is not local. It may not work, yet, here in my hometown of Atlanta because we claim the dubious privilege of being the Least Dense metropolitan area in the United States.. In order for it to work, there has to be an outlet for all those vehicle miles, which means getting people into carpools and transit or onto bicycles or their own two feet. This has merit, but it’s a systemic and long-term problem, and not amenable to just “reduction in vehicle miles travelled”. I’ll again opine that a reduction in vehicle miles will be a result, but can’t be a target; the focus would have to be on providing incentive to densify living areas and provide services that are within easy walking or biking distance with transit services available for those who have to commute long distances. There’s also a question about whether there is any relationship between urban densification and a reduction in vehicle miles traveled. According to a 2008 literature review published by David Brownstone of the University of California, there is a only a weak link between what’s called The Built Environment and vehicular demand. In other words, densify or not, people will keep driving. Dr. Brownstone acknowledges in his paper that this review isn’t a hard-fast fact, but a conclusion drawn from a review of other papers. My experience tends to both agree and disagree with him. I think his paper is concluding the correct thing, *that up to now*, densification strategies have not worked to reduce total travel demand, however I disagree with any general statements that it can’t work because I think the focus hasn’t been broad enough. To truly address Ken Archer’s concern, a regional and national shift in housing, commercial and transportation construction strategies will be necessary. A bold and laudable goal, but we have to get back to funding and its shortfall.

I have no solutions to the funding problem. However I see a threefold approach:

1) Acknowledge that what works for your city/county/state may not work for other jurisdictions. I read all sorts of essays and diatribes by the political left and the political right about transportation and transit issues, mostly about how those other guys are driving the world to hell in a handcart. The big problem is that they’re both right, or both wrong, depending on how *you* personally want to live.

2) Try to regionalize some sort of transportation funding/policy agenda. This is entirely a pie-in-the-sky idea, but it’s irrational to stop talking about transportation at county city or state boundaries. For some it’s easier than others, but what about NY/NJ? Those two states are hand in glove. Gary/Chicago? The same, yet they’re separated by a hard boundary line of funding priorities known as the state line. In some cases, the 10th amendment just doesn’t work very well for planning purposes.

3) Realize that if you/I/we want to maintain the existing system, much less grow it–and by growing it I’m referring to any sort of transportation system such as roads, rail, path, sidewalk, catapult, or zip line–there will have to be a major change in funding, which will mean higher taxes, at least for some. User fees a.k.a. tolling are the wave of the future and there’s not really any way to get around it without raising general taxes. Of course, I’m also a proponent of raising the general sales tax to support transportation because whether or not you drove to buy that item, the item was delivered by some sort of vehicle. You could be a housebound quadriplegic and you’re still a beneficiary of the transportation system. Without that tax revenue, our interstates will slowly crumble and our local road system will collapse.

As you do the three items I’ve listed, transportation safety should be a result. Continued efforts to increase the crash worthiness of vehicles, the forgivingness of the roadside environment, and just preventing crashes in the first place will continue to drive down the rate of vehicular death. Reducing the rate of death may not reduce the absolute number of people killed if the total vehicle miles traveled starts climbing again, but it’s the approach that will have the greatest chance of success.


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