Here’s a transportation solution: Reduce the need to drive

A billboard recently went up along Hwy. 280 aimed at drivers forced to make a detour around the fallen I-35W bridge. “NO NEW TAXES MEANS NO NEW BRIDGES,” it proclaims.

Taken as a broad commentary on Minnesota’s malnourished transportation system, the statement is patently true. Without more money, the state won’t be able to keep traffic flowing safely or efficiently — or, in some instances, flowing at all.

How much new money is needed? Lots. MnDOT, the state’s transportation agency, says it needs $38.1 billion between now and 2030 to maintain roads and bridges and to build new ones to meet the growing demand. But, at current funding levels, it expects to have only $14.5 billion to do the job. I’m no math genius, but that seems like a shortfall of $23.6 billion, or about $1 billion a year.

And that’s just for the bigger highways. Throw in local roads, streets and bridges, ports, waterways, freight railroads and the substantial need to expand the metro area’s under-built transit system and you get an annual shortfall exceeding $1.5 billion.

It gets a little scary imagining what the state won’t be buying with the big sum of money it won’t be getting. More bridges are sure to be inspected and monitored (wink, wink) rather than actually repaired. And freeways, well, if you think traffic is bad now, wait a few years.

It’s possible hypothetically for transportation to poach the money it needs from other state programs, like education, health care and public safety. But that’s about as likely as the Gophers winning the Rose Bowl. Two alternatives are left standing: solving the problem with a higher gasoline tax, an adjusted sales tax and higher driving-related fees; or not solving the problem by continuing to pander to the public’s desire for “no new taxes,” which is the approach favored by the current administration.

Both approaches defy reality. It’s laughable to expect “no new taxes” to make headway against an annual shortfall of $1.5 billion. Likewise, it’s unreasonable to expect Minnesotans to pay taxes high enough to erase the entire shortfall. The transportation bill twice passed by the Legislature and twice vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty would have raised the gas tax a nickel and the sales tax a half-cent in the metro area, among other items. But even that would have filled only two-thirds of the gap.

Redesigning peoples’ lives
What’s missing in this bitter and prolonged fight is any serious attack on the demand side. If the need to drive can be reduced, then the need to pour concrete can be lessened and costs can be cut. If, in the next generation or two, metro residents adjust their lifestyles to minimize driving, then the transportation shortfall looks a bit less desperate.

This approach might appeal to both sides. Liberals love the “social engineering” aspect of redesigning peoples’ lives to fit better with nature. And conservatives, in theory, love to conserve. Finding ways to drive less is all about conserving. Indeed, the rising price of oil and the growing concern over climate change add urgency to demand-side solutions.

I’ve heard no estimate on the impact that reduced driving might have on the transportation funding dilemma that Minnesota faces. But a new report, “Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change,” [PDF] might help the discussion. It’s a compendium of research assembled primarily by Reid Ewing, a planning professor at the University of Maryland.

The report starts by plowing some familiar ground. One big reason our transportation system is stressed is because over the last half century we’ve arranged our lives in ways that separate our homes farther away from work, shopping and schools. That exurban pattern generates more driving trips over longer distances. Since 1980, the number of miles Americans routinely drive has grown three times faster than the population. The Twin Cities has contributed to this wasteful trend. Between 1982 and 1997, our metro population grew by 25.1 percent while our urbanized territory expanded by 61.1 percent, according to the Brookings Institution report, “Who Sprawls Most?” [PDF]

Zoning obstacles
Reversing this trend will be an important part of any effort to affect global warming or to lessen our nation’s dependence on unstable oil supplies and prices. It will mean reverting to the traditional town form popular before World War II: mixing homes and shops, offering housing on a smaller footprint, making transit a realistic option, and introducing Americans to the idea of walking or biking to the corner store rather than driving five miles to the nearest Wall-Mart. This isn’t a recipe for warrens of high-rise buildings, but rather for a community type that your grandparents probably grew up in. Ewing describes the task quite simply: “Building places where people can accomplish more with less driving.”

That may sound difficult, but the potential for change over the next two generations is profound. Citing real estate projections, his report says that two-thirds of development expected to be on the ground by 2050 is not yet built. If 60 percent of that new development can be shifted to more traditional forms, the savings would be equal to boosting fuel efficiency for cars by 28 percent, or reducing annual carbon emissions by 85 million tons, the report says. The market is primed to make the shift, as households shrink, demographics change, culture adjusts, the population ages and fuel prices continue to rise. Studies show that people already living in compact neighborhoods drive 20 to 40 percent fewer miles. Residents of compact Portland, Ore., for example, drive an average of 24 miles a day, while residents of spread-out Atlanta drive an average of 34 miles a day.

The main obstacle to all of this is the default position that auto-dependence holds in most local ordinances and codes. It’s hard to build a traditional corner store near homes if zoning won’t allow it or if 50 parking spaces are required out front. It’s hard to create a village atmosphere if traffic engineers insist on fast, four-lane streets without trees or sidewalks. Leveling the playing field to allow the market to respond to a variety of community types is an important part of the transportation solution — including Minnesota’s. Yes, more money — tax money — will be needed to fix roads and bridges and add transportation capacity. But offering efficient land-use patterns to reduce the need to drive shouldn’t be overlooked.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Stephen Gross on 11/29/2007 - 04:25 pm.

    (1) Thanks so much for writing about this issue. It is crucial for everyone to understand that the transporation crisis is a product of transportation configuration, not transportation quantity. In layman’s terms, that means it’s not a question of more/better roads, it’s whether those roads should exist at all and how land use policies should change.

    (2) I’ve given a lot of thought about how to break down existing paradigms of land use and transportation patterns. To this end, I think we can attack the problem by addressing the major types of trips that people take. These include:

    (3) Commuting: This is in many ways the easiest one to tackle. Commute trips take place in predictable paths at predictable times. Bus routes already are configured to serve commuters. Let’s expand those routes and get some serious express lines in place to make commuting FAST.

    (2) Shopping: This is highly problematic. The main issue is that people need to be able to bring their purchased items BACK with them when they shop. Public transit is NOT amenable to this problem. My solution? A city-wide goods distribution system. Imagine walking/biking/bussing to a store, buying stuff, then leaving WITHOUT the goods. A separate delivery service is guaranteed to have them at your place within 12 hours. This model did indeed exist for grocery stores for a very long time in America. It can work for other goods.

    (3) Leisure/entertainment trips: This is also very difficult to tackle. Going to restaurants / theatres / etc. takes place at unpredictable moments. I would suggest, however, that these trips make up the smallest percentage of the 3 trip-types, and so we can focus our efforts on the first two.

    Ok, I’ve rambled enough. Keep up the good work!


  2. Submitted by Mike Keliher on 11/29/2007 - 04:33 pm.

    Great article. The zoning challenges, I expect, would be a tough nut to crack. The people that would need to be convinced of the importance would too easily get lost on the long path between state transportation funding and local retail-parking ordinances.

    Typo alert: Wal-Mart only has one L.

  3. Submitted by Patrick Phenow on 11/29/2007 - 05:25 pm.

    I wholeheartedly concur. With the other commenters and with the author. And it is a bit depressing, what with people’s disdain for new taxes (or at least Pawlenty’s), and a huge shortfall to overcome. It’s refreshing to hear more people suggesting that, instead of finding more ways to accommodate more traffic, maybe we need to think differently about this.

    But I am hopeful. Minnesotans are a very civic-minded bunch, and many of us have the desire and the drive to work towards real solutions. To wit:

    -A number of my fellow students at the Humphrey Institute are making it their goal to concern themselves with making cities more livable, and god forbid, less friendly to cars. Or at least more friendly to the alternatives.

    -The Citizen’s League has been advocating for a road pricing scheme called free-flow pricing ( It could do a great job of reducing congestion, raising money for roads and/or transit, and forcing motorists to consider the true costs of their choices. The bridge collapse was a shock, but there is a significant gap between what we think it costs to drive our cars and trucks, and what it really costs.

    -Also, look to the good work being done by Transit for Livable Communities ( They are administering some 20 million dollars in federal funds that are responsible for a multitude of planning studies and infrastructure improvement projects aimed at making this city more accomodating to bikers and walkers (

    And of course, the list goes on.

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 12/12/2007 - 07:43 am.

    Thoughtful comments all the way around! I’d also add the following for your consideration:

    (1) Over the long haul, employers that can make work hours more flexible for their employees and/or allow a portion of time to be spent working from home would be a plus. It’s not for every employer, and not every employee, but for those of us who aren’t performing neurosurgery, defending a client in court, or teaching our kids, it remains an option.

    (2) Rail is a part of our transit system and it sounds as if opportunities will expand here. I was recently in Chicago, flew into Midway at rush hour and took the Orange Line from MDW into the Loop for $2.00. In roughly 12 minutes. Our own LRT has exceeded even the most optimistic projections that were initially offered.

    (3) There is also the festering question of transportation in predominantly rural areas. In terms of sheer numbers of employers (and employees), the numbers are frequently a pittance compared to a the metro area, but the transportation choices are far more limited and the long-term economy of these smaller communities may very well depend on those few employers.

    Like it or not, tourism is a major part of Minnesota’s economy. Forget rail. How would you feel about getting off Amtrak in Detroit Lakes in the middle of the night? Air service (other than MSP) doesn’t require a travel agent–you need a loan officer instead. Roads are it and they are frequently choked. (See Hwy 61 on the North Shore in September for a prime example of this phenomenon.)

    The previous comments lead to a rhetorical question: To what extent (if any) are the transportation issues we face in the metro area and the choices we have to deal with them going to come at the expense of predominantly rural parts of the state? How do we establish balance?

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