Europe vs. USA, VMT vs. GDP, and the Surface Commission

When testifying March 19 before the National Surface Transportation Policy & Revenue Commission, I used some of my time to rebut claims by a previous witness (representing the American Highway Users Alliance) that:

  • VMT (highway vehicle miles traveled) and economic growth (GDP) are inextricably linked,
  • London is uniquely suited to center city highway tolling, and
  • “Europe is becoming more like us rather than the other way around.”

GDP might roughly track with total travel, but certainly not highway travel alone. Consider this release, under the headline “IBM helps city of Stockholm reduce road traffic by 25% in one month: Following the January launch of the Stockholm Congestion Charging Scheme, initial data indicates that the pilot has successfully reduced traffic by 25 percent [100,000 vehicle passengers per day]; increased public transport usage by 40,000 users per day; and dramatically cut peak-time road congestion.” The full release is on IBM’s website.  By the way, Stockholm is not London! One hopes that, if center city tolling becomes commonplace in Europe, the US will not bury its head in the sand and say, “Europe is uniquely suited…”

Our December 21 hotline reported that VMT in the U.S. rose only 0.9% from 2004 to 2005. At the same time, it turns out, U.S. GDP rose 6.3% in current dollars and 3.2% in “chained 2000 dollars”—and transit trips rose 2.5%.

As for Europe vs. the US, a presentation at Transportation Research Board here in January was revealing. Lewis M. Fulton, of the United Nations Environmental Program (based in Kenya), reported that the average U.S. vehicle travels 42% more miles than the average car in Germany. The average U.S. vehicle consumes 112.5% more fuel than its German counterpart (2,040 gallons vs. 960), and even 21.4% more than a Canadian car (1,680 gallons).

Fulton also illustrated U.S. vulnerability to swings in the world market price of oil. In the two years ending August 2006, the average fuel cost per year per vehicle rose $600 here but only $290 in Germany. The pump price (with taxes) increased 59% here but only 22% in Germany.

A more detailed report on my presentation to the Commission is under news releases over on the regular NARP website. Prepared statements of all the witnesses are on the Commission’s website (click on Information Central, then the March 19 hearing); be sure also to check submissions by Anne Canby of Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and David L. Greene of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Dr. Greene notes that we could sustain business as usual “through mid-century and beyond” with environmentally problematic “unconventional fossil hydrocarbon and carbon resources, in the form of oil sands, extra-heavy oil, coal and oil shale [which] can be converted to conventional transportation fuels at costs comparable to oil prices seen over the last three years.” He cautions that major scientific breakthroughs are needed for “climate-friendly” solutions to work. Although he refers ominously to the “unconventional…resources” as “the path of least resistance,” he expresses optimism that “we will decide to reduce the threat of dangerous climate change by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions” and says “surface transportation will have to make a serious and sustained effort to increase its energy efficiency and reduce the carbon intensity of its energy sources.”

Most encouraging was the response by Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson to the question, “What one recommendation would you want us to make to Congress?” Peterson, representing the National League of Cities, said, “We must have greater respect for transit. [This would let us] lower the cost per passenger in our transportation system.” He also said, “I cannot go a day without someone telling me how wonderful our old interurban system was…this is the year” for the Indianapolis region to make a decision about rail transit and he expects it will be a positive one.

—Ross Capon