Albemarle Transportation Policy – Multimodal or Anti-Automobile?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Albemarle County has been rewriting their state mandated Comprehensive Plan for over four years.  The Free Enterprise Forum has been an active participant in these conversations.  With the plan now headed to its final public hearing on June 10, we will provide our chapter by chapter review over the next two weeks culminating with our overall analysis prior to the public hearing. 

Today – Chapter 10 Transportation

The Transportation chapter of Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan continues the county’s (and to a lesser extent the Commonwealth’s) increased emphasis on multimodality often at the cost of automobile spending.  What is multimodalism?  According to Monique Wahba AKA The Multimodalist:

Multimodalism is about leveling the playing field so a transportation system can safely accommodate many modes or forms of transportation rather than have one dominate. To me, it’s about putting people first. When the question is “how can we move people from place to place?” rather than “how can we move cars?” the transportation solutions abound. We can have people move on their own – walk or bicycle or use some other self-powered mode of transportation. Or we can put them in some kind of vehicle – e.g. a car, a bus, a train, a plane. And when challenges in transportation arise, we can become more creative. Towns in the US and abroad are using funiculars to connect downtowns with outlying hilltop areas rather than limit themselves to roadway solutions, saving travel time and sparing their environments.

It is clear that the Comprehensive Plan is leaning toward pushing people out of single occupant vehicles and into other modes of transportation.  From page 10:13:

Albemarle County strives to promote transit-friendly, walkable, mixed-use communities that are served by multiple transportation modes. A connected, mixed-used community can reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and, thereby, improve citizens’ health by reducing vehicle emissions. A reduction in VMT improves air quality by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles. Interconnected streets and alternatives to vehicular travel, like mass transit, walking or biking also have the potential to improve or mitigate air quality problems by reducing VMT.

Multimodalism provides for:
Cost-Efficient Use of Public Dollars which benefits travelers by moving people (not cars) while expending the same amount of money and optimizing the use of existing facilities instead of building new ones.
Energy Conservation by reducing emissions through fewer and shorter vehicle trips.
More Transportation Choices by providing alternate modes, times, locations, and route choices for travel.
Mobility and Opportunity Equity by meeting transportation needs of low income, disabled, and other minority populations and providing more opportunities for getting to work, making connections, and career advancement.
Public Health by creating a safer environment for walkers and cyclists, with fewer crashes and lower fatality rates, supporting active lifestyles through more opportunities for walking, and providing more access to a wider range of goods and services.
Economic Vitality by providing greater accessibility for existing and future workforces, attracting businesses through more multimodal transportation choices for employees, and increasing property values by making places more accessible. Reducing time in commutes time equals money
Reduced Congestion by giving more modal choices reducing overall congestion and providing greater redundancy in network choices through other modes.
Quality of Life by designing streets as places to spur social interaction, promoting pride in neighborhoods, spurring more “eyes on the street” for crime reduction, and facilitating a greater sense of community through more accessible places and corridors.

When the conversation is focused on Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and not mobility, the Free Enterprise Forum sees the government engaging in social engineering.  Unfortunately, there is unsettled economic theory regarding the net benefits of multimodality (in this case transit) vs. auto dependency.  According to a 2010  Heritage Foundation paper by Wendell Cox:

The loss of productivity from relying on transit can be even greater than longer travel times for the employed. Unlike commuting by cars, it may be impossible to commute in a metropolitan area by transit. For example, a Federal Transit Administration study found that few low-income central-city residents in Boston could reach high-growth suburban employment areas within one hour by transit, a fact that reduces regional productivity.[47] University of California research indi­cates far smaller unemployment rates among African–American households where there is an automobile avail­able.[48] This is because cars shorten commute times and broaden access to jobs throughout the metropolitan area, not just to the limited areas with adequate transit service.

Other research by the Progressive Policy Institute has shown that access to cars improves minority and low-income employment and productivity, noting that “[i]n most cases, the shortest distance between a poor person and a job is along a line driven in a car.”[49] Additionally, a Brookings Institution report concluded that, “[g]iven the strong connection between cars and employment outcomes, auto ownership programs may be one of the more promising options and one worthy of expansion.”[50] This research demonstrates that in the modern urban area, transit cannot substitute for cars for a large share of trips.

This connection between employment and automobile ownership led the Clinton Administration to ease wel­fare-program restrictions to make it easier for recipients to own a car. In announcing the new policy, the White House stated that:

“Even in metropolitan areas with extensive transit systems, studies have shown that less than half the entry level jobs are accessible by transit. One national study found that twice as many welfare recipients with cars were working than those without cars, and 25 percent more low-income fam­ilies with cars were working than those without cars.[51]

Much of the multimodalistic theology revolves around the fact that more people would be engaged in different modes of transportation if only the infrastructure existed for them to utilize.  While one admires the passionate zeal the proponents have, the reality is the “Vanishing Automobile” isn’t.  As of 2007,  Virginia ranks #22 in automobile per capita in the United States.

Joel Schwartz of The American Enterprise Institute has calculated the various portions of market share of the multimodality.  In his 2006 report to UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies Seminar he found:

market share

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the transportation chapter of Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan should spend less time trying to get people out of their cars and more time making their automobile trips more efficient.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

NEXT: Dr. Strangelove and Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website

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