The ‘driving boom’ is over
What does that mean for urban places, transportation, and policy?
The trend toward less driving received national attention in May with the release of a report by US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), and the news has profound implications for both urbanism and transportation.
Total US driving dipped and then leveled off in recent years, and per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has steadily dropped since 2005 — 93 months. Per capita driving is down 8.75 percent, and is now at 1996 levels. The decline has no end in sight. The turnabout wouldn’t seem so remarkable if it hadn’t followed six decades of steady and substantial rises in VMT fueled by cheap gasoline, highway construction, suburban development, and women entering the workforce.
The trend is most pronounced among the young. “Between 2001 and 2009, the average yearly number of miles driven by 16- to 34-year-olds dropped a staggering 23 percent,” wrote Brad Plumer of The Washington Post. This cohort includes both Millennials and Generation X, but the trend is strongest among Millennials.
Note: This article is in the June 2013 of Better! Cities & Towns. Subscribe and get all of the reports packaged in a convenient, tactile format delivered to a special box on your doorstep. Some of our reports are for paid subscribers only.
Older drivers are contributing to the end of the driving boom. The most auto-centric generation in US history, the so-called Eisenhowers who came of age in the 1950s, are now well into the Golden Years. Boomers, nearly as prolific drivers, started reaching 65 in 2011. Retirement brings less driving.
The trend dovetails with the shift toward walkable neighborhoods. US PIRG report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” makes a direct connection between urban living and driving. “Millennials are twice as likely as Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers to express a desire to live in a city,” says PIRG. According to a 2011 survey by the National Association for Realtors, 62 percent of people ages 18-29 said they would prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods rather than conventional suburbs, PIRG notes.
The report looks at three scenarios: “Back to the Future” where driving starts to rise again at historical levels, “Enduring Shift” which assumes the decline “is real and lasting,” and “Ongoing Decline” where today’s VMT trend grows into a bigger change.
All three scenarios start in 2009, the last year that data was available by age. Yet aggregate VMT data for the last three years tracks almost exactly with the middle Enduring Shift scenario. From 2010 through 2012 the economy was slowly bouncing back from a deep trough, when one would expect driving to noticeably rise. After the early ‘80s recession brought on by high oil prices, when VMT dropped significantly, driving did bounce back quickly. In light of this, the Back to the Future scenario seems unlikely.
Assuming walkable neighborhoods and driving trends are mutually reinforcing, some version of Enduring Shift or Ongoing Decline seems likely going forward. Among 16 to 34 year olds, transit use is up 40 percent since 2001, Plumer reports. Rising transit popularity supports both transit-oriented development and the repopulation of neighborhoods with existing transit service.
Other factors are “new mobility” programs like carshare and bikeshare, which only work in walkable places. These services are centered on downtowns and close-in neighborhoods, with a handful scattered in the densest suburbs. The neighborhoods served by carshare will grow over time, and you can chart the spread of high-value areas by Zipcar locations. Bicycling, overall, rose by a quarter from 2001 to 2009.
Some of the strongest parts of the report call for a new transportation policy. When Americans expressed a desire to live in the suburbs after World War II, the full force of federal, state, and local government was brought to bear to support the Driving Boom and the suburban built environment, PIRG notes. In the 21st Century, government should lend a hand to Millennials and others who wish to drive less.
“Federal, state and local policies should help create the conditions under which Americans can fulfill their desire to drive less. Increasing investments in public transportation, bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure and intercity rail—especially when coupled with regulatory changes to enable ... walkable neighborhoods—can help provide more Americans with a broader range of transportation options.”
Robert Steuteville is editor and publisher of Better! Cities & Towns. This article appears in the June print issue.