MDOT: “Making VMT Reduction A Mobility Goal Is Punitive, Combative, And Might Hurt People’s Feelings”

Such was the actual critique in a recent meeting of the Transportation and Mobility workgroup within the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes, and Environment, or EGLE. I’ve been participating in the group since its inception. It’s one that has been running parallel to a few other ones working on building decarbonization and power grid investment. We’re not doing much of either in the Mitten State, of course, but we are at least now talking about it. The transportation group in particular was of interest to me as someone who is constantly trying to figure out ways to improve the mobility paradigm in our state and in the US in general. This is also a good sidebar to my recent piece comparing the regulatory approaches in Michigan to those in Maryland, because it speaks volumes to how far we have to go to adopt a progressive platform that will actually help stabilize our state’s stagnating economy and ensure sustainability for its future infrastructure.

Regulation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if wielded prudently. We see examples in Michigan, where frequent power outages are raising questions about the liability of absent regulators as well as utility companies.

What’s A VMT?

First, we can think of Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT, as more or less a measure of automobile reliance. It’s calculated by “total annual miles of vehicle travel divided by the total population in a state or in an urbanized area.” If that sounds a bit abstract, that’s because it is. It’s not a number that’s terribly easy to calculate. But we have good enough ways to estimate it, such that it becomes a useful metric for understanding how reliant a particular area is on cars versus, say, public transit.

We can then use this as a proxy for understanding more tangible things like carbon footprint or household spending. I’ve often referred to the “car tax,” in which, if you live in certain areas, you’re effectively required to own a car, tantamount to a several thousand dollars per year tax levied by the State that won’t invest in transit. VMT has also been observed as a pivotal consideration in climate planning. If policymakers considered VMT reduction as tantamount to saving every worker a few thousand dollars per year, it might gain some credence among those who continue to worship at the altar of the motorcar.

VMT vs. Level-of-Service (LoS) 

The problem is that transportation engineers have historically not paid much attention to VMT, favoring instead a perhaps even more nebulous measurement called Level-of-Service, or LoS. Level-of-Service is roughly analogous to the traffic color-coding on your Google Maps, which shows some roads as green, and showing slowdowns as yellow, orange, or red. It’s an A-F grading system, like the same grading scale used to tell us that our infrastructure is in bad shape, but it actually relies on observable metrics like car distance and rates of speed, according to the arcane wisdom of the AASHTO Green Book. Improving LoS at all costs has been the name of the game since the metric has existed. Departments of Transportation typically try and achieve this by adding lanes. More lanes means better traffic flow, right?

Written earlier this year, we looked at a set of parallels between how departments of police and transportation are disproportionately unaccountable, disproportionately well-funded, and disproportionately responsible for a large number of deaths.

Well, no. Unfortunately, highways don’t operate based on the laws of fluid dynamics. It’s true that a highway can approximate the laminar flow of a fluid in a pipe, for example. But human behavior makes it impossible to consider highways as the same thing as water pipes. A large portion of all slowdowns aren’t caused by accidents, but rather by inexplicable, sudden braking, resulting from the idiosyncratic behavior of drivers.

Induced Demand: More Lanes = More Traffic

Beyond this fallacy, the discussion of “induced demand,” for example, has become a hot topic in recent years. There’s a large body of evidence that says that if you add more lanes, you’re not actually reducing traffic or improving the traffic flow, you’re actually just spreading it out– and even adding more traffic because people think there is more space for driving. It’s kind of like moving food around on your plate to pretend you’ve eaten it. (Side note: People have really strong feelings on this subject. If you want to get a traffic engineer really riled, ask them about induced demand).

On the edge of downtown Detroit, a generally quite popular proposal to effectively eliminate an underused spur of interstate highway, I-375, has foundered in Lansing as bureaucrats try and figure out ways to avoid thinking about it. MDOT’s proposals to eliminate the highway have generally favored extraordinarily broad surfaces with, as pictured above, seven, eight, or nine traffic lanes.
MDOT Digs In (Literally– to build new roads)

Following its formation earlier this year, the transportation workgroup broke out into a couple of different subgroups to discuss individual priorities for Michigan’s mobility future. I worked with Todd Scott (Detroit Greenways), Megan Owens (Transportation Riders United), and others, to figure out some policy line items that we think the state should emphasize. One of them included VMT reduction. For me, this means fewer cars on the road. This results in less congestion. Less congestion means increased economic product, less spending on gas, less air pollution, and less urban heat island.

MDOT has said in the past that it is restricted by legislative limitations on the things it can and can’t fund […] while this may be true, there is a strong degree to which the agency unapologetically and unflaggingly embraces car culture instead of even giving credence to alternatives. Nowhere is this more true than in MDOT’s apparent refusal to consider the VMT reduction policy measure.

So, Friday before last, I had stepped out from another call– putting finishing touches on the Empower Maryland Semiannual Reports for The Potomac Electric Power Company and Delmarva Power and Light, submitted last Monday- after receiving a text from a colleague who was on the call who brought this commentary to my attention. Knowing full well that I was the only person in the group to actually have the audacity to tell MDOT staff that they were being really quite silly, well, I did.

Executive Automotive Priority Trumps Sustainable Mobility

MDOT’s Niles Annelin, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as a planner and Policy Section Manager, tag-teamed the opposition to VMT along with Judd Herzer, a somewhat under-the-radar figure associated with the state’s Chief Mobility Officer Trevor Pawl’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, whose better name might be the Office of Cars But Different. Prior to heading up the OFME, Pawl worked with MEDC and PlanetM, a Michigan mobility (“mobility,” also known as  “cars but different”) economic development initiative. What is good for the Big Two and a Half is good for MDOT, is the dominant paradigm in the Mitten State. I’ve been critical of Pawl as essentially serving as a spokesperson for the more modern side of the auto industry. The OFME does not particularly care about VMT reduction. It does not particularly care about building sustainable cities. It cares about technology, public subsidies that help develop technology within the automotive sector and industry clusters across the state, and, well, cars. Cars, cars, cars.

It is unclear why Annelin, Herzer, and Pawl would think VMT a good target to go after. Brad Sharlow, a Transportation Planning Supervisor with the agency (who, incidentally, once told the author he was clearly uninformed about road engineering worked after the author suggested an increased emphasis on green stormwater management as roadways continued to flood), just presented to Transportation Riders United a few weeks ago on MDOT’s long-range regional plan, and stated clearly and unequivocally that the agency does not currently have the ability to fund the future maintenance of its highway systems. But rather than concede that our highways are actually overbuilt in terms of lane-miles, Sharlow toed the company line that rather, we need to plan on increased VMT, and, most likely, increased lane miles.

“Cool idea! We can’t do it!”

In plain English? There is no way we can possibly reduce how much people drive. MDOT has said in the past that it is restricted by legislative limitations on the things it can and can’t fund. I have pointed out in response that, while this may be true, there is a strong degree to which the agency unapologetically and unflaggingly embraces car culture instead of even giving credence to alternatives. (In my thesis research, for example, I did an extensive media analysis of their public communications materials, showing that only a tiny percentage of their materials mention, let alone focus on, non-car modes of transportation). Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in MDOT’s apparent refusal to consider the VMT reduction policy measure.

Suffice it to say, given my experience dealing with MDOT (“I’m sorry, who are you?” is the typical comms response), I was hardly shocked when the likes of Judd Herzer and Niles Annelin pushed back on the discussion of VMT. It’s just dismaying when agencies are directly responsible for developing long-range plans including plans that address climate change. I responded– probably irksome for some of the attendees- that suggesting VMT reduction is no more combative than saying “we should probably reduce our emissions.” But it’s considered hostile to the paradigm of the divine motorcar.

Furthermore, it is unclear why MEDC representatives should be effectively calling the shots on directing statewide transportation policy– and this might well be the thesis of this whole article. Lamented one reader, “these are the same guys who are going to NACTO and nodding along to presentations about how we need better non-motorized infrastructure, and then they just come back to Michigan to try and make the world safer for autonomous electric Hummers.”

This leads us to a conclusion of “how”: how would a policy work to actually reduce VMT? Fortunately, it’s fairly simple in policy terms, at least to start. There is a much peskier thing, and that’s the fact that Michigan’s automotive mandate is pretty well-baked into state law. Like, going back decades. Older than, for example, noted insurrectionist Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

Policy Measures: Reducing VMT, Costs, Pollution, & Congestion

While no one should be surprised that Michigan is behind the curve here, perhaps unsurprisingly, California, land of well-intentioned but often dubiously-executed, sweeping, progressive legislation, is making some moves in this department. In 2020, the state moved from a Level-of-Service performance metric to a VMT reduction metric. What does this mean in plain English? Instead of measuring the success of a road project– or the funding for it- by how smoothly cars flow through a given area, the state will now measure it by how well they were able to reduce the amount of cars traveling.

While this might seem abstract as a matter of calculation, if you work your way back out of a project by way of the “induced demand” logic, you can do things that reduce the amount of cars traveling while also reducing congestion. So, here are a few ideas that I’m certain, well, nobody at the state’s road engineering agency will like:

  • Prohibit the construction of new roads without revenue sources to fund them. Going back to Brad Sharlow’s point about the state not having enough money, why should it be legal to fund massive things without having the ability to pay to maintain them? Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who maintains his hold. on power as a right-of-center Democrat in a county that is slightly to the right of the Kaiser, is presiding over a ballooning tab for road maintenance costs.
  • Introduce congestion pricing and tolling on major routes. Again, good luck? Seems like conservatives think the government should be fiscally responsible, but God forbid people have to pay directly for the roads they use. On the flipside, tolling is effectively a user fee. You could use that revenue to defray the costs of road maintenance (and therefore reduce the strain on limited sources of tax revenues).
  • Traffic calming measures on major roads. Mound Road in Warren, where General Motors maintains its de facto headquarters, is undergoing this whole future of cars retrofit, called, puzzlingly, “Innovate Mound.” It is unclear why it needs to have, you know, seventeen lanes, or whatever. The wider the lane, the more of an inclination drivers have to speed.
  • Aggressive commuter alternative incentives. There is this trope that goes something like this: in a backwards society, it’s only the poor who have to use transit, while in a prosperous society, it’s the wealthy who choose to use transit. I have often maintained that we can avoid this dichotomy by capturing the share of the market of fence-sitters who are easily influenced by small shifts in prices, i.e., “I would take the bus if it were free, but if I can afford it, I’ll drive.” At the extremes: $10,000 a year for a car, or $800 a year for a regional bus pass? Unsurprisingly, the latter is probably less than the overall public burden per capita of roads and car dependency. Worth considering.
  • Increase gas taxes. Liberals will occasionally claim this is regressive. Conservatives claim all taxes are bad. There is little agreement on the matter. Not exactly an easy way out of this one, especially given that the increase in electric vehicles like Tesla at the highest-end of the market, which, obviously, don’t pay gas taxes. But the obsession with extremely expensive cars that get extremely poor gas mileage suggests that, well, we should. at least make sure the gas tax is indexed to inflation. You know, provided we’re serious about climate change.
  • VMT tax. This is a really hard one to actually implement, although it would address the previously mentioned deficiencies with gas tax.

Oh, and real quick? A carbon tax would be a great way to eliminate the need for most of these things.

One commenter in attendance at the mobility workgroup meeting told me glumly that “if Michigan does have a reduction in VMT in the near term, it’s probably going to be from statewide population loss.”

As they say, “woof.” That’s a bit depressing. But, one might guess, not outside the realm of imagination.

A spokesperson for MDOT did not respond to repeated requests for comment for whether the agency is considering VMT reduction targets, except to say that Judd Herzer is not associated with MDOT, but rather with the Office of Mobility.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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