Decades of Highway Building and Vehicle Use Has Gotten Us Where, Exactly?5 min read


There are an estimated 38 million Californians. In 1930 California had less than 6 million people and only 2 million registered vehicles, according to California Air Resources Board (ARB) data. (No mention was made of how many vehicle miles were amassed>)

According to the same source, in 1940 California drivers logged 24 billion miles in 2.8 million registered vehicles with 7 million people calling California home. Contrast this with the year 2000 where 34 million state residents registered 23.4 million vehicles and 280 billion vehicle miles traveled (VMT) were recorded. So, in 60 years’ time, state population grew by 27 million (it increased 285.7%), the number of registered vehicles jumped 20.6 million (it increased 735.7%) and the number of VMT jumped 256 billion (it increased 1,067%).

The relationship is such that with only a modest jump in population there’s a correlating sharp rise in VMT. In 1990, meanwhile, California’s 30 million residents owned 23 million vehicles but registered 242 billion VMT. So, between 1990 and 2000 (a decade), even though the number of residents grew by 13.3% and the number of VMT rose by 15.7%, yet the number of registered vehicles grew by only 1.74%.

What all this is leading to is with increases in population has come a greater increase in vehicle miles traveled, meaning the number of miles driven by residents has outpaced population growth. This growth has occurred despite limited growth in motor vehicle sales, at least in the decade between 1990 and 2000, anyway. What’s happened here is more miles are being logged by motor vehicles.

What this has resulted in is reduced mobility.

Ted Balaker and Sam Staley in their book: “The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” concur: “After centuries of speeding up, we are beginning to slow down. The culprit is that mundane irritant called traffic congestion.”

One reason for the congestion: Between 1980 and 2006, highway lane miles grew by only six percent according to information presented in the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report “California Transportation.” And the likelihood that such freeway expansion will lag way behind the demand placed on freeways will continue.

Sadly, the expectation is that VMT will continue to outpace the growth in population unless there is a paradigm shift in the way we move. Without such a shift, the real question is: How long can this go on before we hit that proverbial brick wall? You know what? I don’t care to find out. Surely, we can do better. I, for one, know we can. It’s time we break with tradition.

So, what’s responsible for the relative rapid rise in VMT? The Center For Clean Air Policy in its “CCAP Transportation Guidebook, Part 1: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management,” sums it up as follows:

“Patterns of urban growth characteristic of post WWII North American development have created cities and regions that are centered upon and are dependent on the car to meet transportation needs. Located largely at the urban fringe, this pattern of suburban, or greenfield, development is typically dominated by housing-only enclaves consisting of single family homes with two-car garages and a hierarchical road system (with one way in and out). Here, land use functions are isolated (residential, commercial, employment), origins and destinations are farther apart, infrastructure design is oriented toward the automobile, and low population densities are not conducive to public transportation. With the automobile as the only realistic transportation mode for suburbanites in these sprawling communities, commuters are faced with increased driving distances and increased congestion. All told, this pattern of growth has resulted in deteriorating urban air quality and human health, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, limited transportation and housing choice, inefficient use of infrastructure, and communities that are less able to meet the needs of their residents.”

Now that the situation is better understood, what can be done to change what has become an established paradigm, maybe even the established paradigm?

Greater reliance on public transportation including high-speed rail, a shift away from horizontal growth and toward more concentrated vertical growth in the urban core making use of mixed-use development built up around train and transit stations in particular which also aids in promoting increased pedestrian activity around said stations.

“The evidence is quite clear that rail transit, all other things being equal, attracts more intense development and increases return on investment,” wrote Hank Dittmar and Shelley Poticha in “Defining Transit-Oriented Development: The New Regional Building Block,” in the book: “The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development,” co-edited by Dittmar and Gloria Ohland. “Developers and employers can count on a rail line to be there, and rail has a more positive image than a bus.”

High-speed rail can do the same thing but can be even more.

Fresno Bee reporter Tim Sheehan – while on a recent high-speed rail tour of Spain  – cited AVE train rider Jacinto Calvillo – who wrote: “‘…[high- speed rail] has created greater movement of business, more connections and more commerce.’”

What’s more, Sheehan remarked, “The people who ride the AVE [Alta Velocidad Española] trains love them. Merchants who do business near the stations in rail-connected cities such as Barcelona, Seville and Cordova say they generally believe the trains are good for their cities, good for business and good for the country.” But, not before noting that, “[High-speed trains have] gotten people out of their cars and off airplanes, sliced travel times and attracted millions of riders a year — just what California rail boosters hope will happen here.”


Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here