USDOT Acknowledges We Should Measure People, Not Just Cars

We have one last victory to report at Secretary Foxx’s US Department of Transportation. USDOT has significantly rewritten their proposed system performance measures after receiving significant pressure from advocates like you. We owe a big thank you to everyone who weighed in and to USDOT for listening. 

If you recall, last April we asked for your help in pushing back on USDOT’s proposed ways to measure the performance of our transportation system. These measures will be used by state departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan areas to set goals for improvement and to build transportation projects that advance those goals. USDOT’s initial proposed measures focused exclusively on cars by measuring speed or travel times. It would have steered transportation funding towards expanding roads and increasing vehicle speeds, at the expense of efforts by states and localities to reduce their reliance on cars and roads. 

Your voices pushed USDOT to measure people, not cars, and account for the role that biking, walking, and transit play in getting people out of cars and reducing congestion.  In partnership with many organizations and advocates, we collectively generated thousands of letters. A total of 95 percent of comments on the rule requested multimodal performance measures and/or greenhouse gas performance measures. In fact, we were so successful that AASHTO, which represents state departments of transportation, asked USDOT to disregard the views of people like you who use transportation. 

This week, USDOT made available the revised system performance rule, which is vastly improved. While the 339 page rule is complex, highlights include:

  • DOTs and MPOs must now measure of the percentage of travel made by non-single occupancy vehicles. This means that people using transit, carpooling, and biking and walking—thus reducing congestion—will be counted, and it provides incentives for DOTs to invest in those modes to reduce congestion, rather than simply by expanding roads.
  • Several of the measures of car or truck travel time and vehicle speeds changed from only measuring car travel to also include the number people carried by vehicles (now called person-miles)—which factors in the impact of transit and carpooling.
  • USDOT also added a measure that examines the change in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) generated by transportation.  This will also encourage DOTs to consider cleaner fuels and investing in modes of transportation that reduce GHGs—such as transit, biking, and walking.

All in all, these revised measures do a much better job in measuring the impact of transportation on people and better capture the breadth of multi-modal transportation options, rather than just cars and trucks. Of course, they aren’t perfect.  More comprehensive data needs to be collected regularly and consistently around the country on transit and active transportation, but this rule should help move us in that direction.

When paired with our prior win on the safety performance measure that requires state DOTs and MPOs to be held accountable for improving bicycle and pedestrian safety, these performance measures set the expectation that transportation is about more than roads and cars—it’s about accessibility and safety of all users, whatever mode they prefer.

However, in spite of this good news, it’s important to acknowledge that we are entering into unknown territory when Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao takes over USDOT. At her confirmation hearing this week, Chao did not elaborate on her transportation views and priorities. Many Senators expressed their views on transportation priorities, and Chao responded with commitments to work with Congress on those issues, without sharing her own opinions. (Note: on January 31, the full Senate approved Chao's nomination on a 93-6 vote, and she will shortly be sworn in as the next Secretary of Transportation.)

We will need to monitor the new administration’s progress on implementing these new performance measures, ensuring that there is no backtracking or efforts to overturn these measures. State DOTs and MPOs must start setting their targets on these measures in 2018, and it will be up to all of us to ensure that those goals help move us in the right direction. We will also want to ensure that USDOT continues forward with the promised research into better measurement of multi-modal travel so that the performance measures can continue to improve.