America’s car obsession will not be diminished by Millennials alone

» We cannot bank our hopes for a less car-dependent future on the supposed preferences of a new generation.

The plateauing and decline in U.S. vehicle miles traveled per capita that occurred between mid-2005 and mid-2014 was described by some hopeful commentators as a dramatic shift that was indicative of the preferences of a new workforce. Yes, it coincided with the recession and an increase in gas prices, they said, but it was really more about generational change. Whereas in the past Americans dreamed of living in the suburbs and traveling virtually everywhere in their single-occupant automobiles, now Americans, addicted to their smart phones, are looking for walkable, urban living. Evidence suggests that they may have had a point: The age at which people registered for drivers licenses is increasing and certainly neighborhoods in central neighborhoods in city after city have been blossoming of late.

The more recent uptick in per-capita vehicle miles traveled that has occurred since mid-2014, coinciding with a reduction in gas prices, has failed to dim this argument among some. The long-term facts are still there, many urbanists argue; younger people are fine with biking and taking transit. Yes, people might drive more when gas prices decrease, but they’re never going to drive as much as traffic models suggested they would.

Except that’s not enough. The basic facts of life on the ground in America—that our country is an automobile-oriented society—remain the case. Marginal changes in the way a new generation behaves, or even major changes in the way a new generation thinks, cannot overcome the realities of a country where more than three-fourths of jobs are located more than three miles from downtowns and where only one-fourth of homes are in places that their residents refer to as urban.

While slow change may be occurring—the share of Americans driving to work alone declined from 76.98 percent in 2005 to 76.46 percent in 2014—the overwhelming majority of U.S. residents will continue to rely on cars for their everyday needs. Just as importantly, the population is growing so much more quickly than these marginal changes are occurring that the problems related to car dependence are likely to get worse before they improve. Relying on a new generation’s supposed preferences to make a dramatic change in the nation’s overall habits is not only not going to work but it is also naive.

Missing the forest for the trees

Much of the impression that the society is changing is informed by the truly positive changes occurring in many of America’s center cities. In the ten cities with the highest number (not share) of people taking transit to work in 2014,* each saw more commuters using transit in 2014 than 2005. In total, the number of commuters using transit to get to work in those places increased by almost twice as much (+629,000 or +22%) as the number of people driving alone to work (+332,000 or +9%) over that period.

Between 2005 and 2014, there were seven times more new commuters driving alone to work than new transit riders at the national level.

In other words, the growth in workers in America’s most transit-friendly cities is being absorbed by the transit system more than the roadways. In Chicago, for example, I documented that growth in jobs was entirely absorbed—and more—by sustainable transportation modes and people working from home.

Given that this growth is corresponding to increased congestion on transit systems—visible to anyone who uses them—and, perhaps more importantly, that these cities are the center of American media and intellectual culture (the major East Coast regions, plus Chicago and the three biggest West Coast regions), we shouldn’t be surprised that the dominant narrative is one of a move away from cars.

But the truth is that the dominant reality is actually a move toward more cars. The residents of the ten cities mentioned above account for 46.8 percent of total transit commuters despite representing only 6.6 percent of total American workers. They also slightly grew their share of overall American transit ridership between 2005 and 2014.


The rest of the country moved toward cars. The number of transit users outside of those ten cities increased by 701,000, but the number of commuters driving alone to work increased by 8.8 million—more than 12 times as much. The higher percentage increase in transit users versus drivers (21 versus 9 percent) masks the fact that there are just so many more people getting to work alone in their cars.

Those 8.8 million new driving commuters are on our roads, and they will probably be joined by at least 8.8 million more driving commuters over the next decade, as well. How will they be accommodated? What other options do they actually have?

Even among the youngest members of the workforce, the pull of driving remains strong. Of the increase in workers 16 to 24 years old between 2005 and 2014, two times as many drove alone to work versus taking transit; the drive-alone mode share of commuters in that age group (70.3 percent) is practically as high as the national average (76.5 percent), though it has declined slightly from 71.5 percent in 2005.


The growth in driving, again, should not be a huge surprise. Peoples’ lives are built around the environment in which they live, and that landscape changes slowly. Neighborhoods where it was hard to get around by anything but driving 20 years ago likely have remained that way and will continue to work as such for the next 20 years. “Solving” the suburban reliance on cars in any region is impossible when communities are so spread apart and mixed uses are so limited in their availability.

Nor is a mass movement into transit-friendly center cities realistic. Between 2005 and 2014, the top ten transit cities grew their collective workforce by 1.3 million jobs—but the rest of the country increased by 11.5 million jobs. Today’s transit cities are expensive to live in and difficult to build in.

Just as importantly, we simply are not investing in improving transit systems to provide people adequate alternatives. While some regions have directed substantial sums to upgrade their urban and suburban public transportation—Denver and Seattle come to mind—many others have not; think of Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, or Tampa, where improvements have been limited at best and where sprawl and its associated road building continues virtually unabated.

How in the world can we expect people in these types of places to switch en masse away from driving when real alternatives are not being offered to them?

Ignoring the political

Much of the recent argument has revolved around the fact that road engineers have vastly overestimated the growth in car traffic, assuming that people will continue to increase their reliance on driving and thus encouraging ever more investments in road construction—even when confronted with evidence of a generational change in habits.

The logic of transportation planners is indeed detrimental to the construction of a different way to get around, and it provides empirical justification for continued pursuit of policies that are bad for our cities and ultimately bad for our country.

But the real problem is not the logic of planners; making the case to them that they should alter their metrics to reflect generational change is missing the point. Indeed, if generational change is altering the decisions about the way some people get around, it is not, in itself, nearly enough to alter the way a lot of people get around, and as the figures cited above suggest, the large majority of young people still use cars to get around. Importantly, we will go back to rampant increases in car use—and perhaps we already are—if we rely only on the hope that younger people will act differently and adjust our models to reflect that.

We must do a better job developing a political argument—an ideological claim—that can support a transition away from road building and a society built around it that works not just in the aforementioned center cities but also in the suburbs of those cities and in other regions. Only with a change in the way our society is built—meaning not only the way our transportation is planned but also the way our neighborhoods are structured—will the level of automobile use actually decline, and that change requires political support. A generational change of mindset is not enough.

A stronger political argument, adopted by people and by politicians around the goals of improving our climate and of improving our communities, followed by investments and policies that actually support reduced car use, is the only way to truly make progress on these questions. Otherwise, we’ll simply be improving the conditions of a few urban centers and ignoring the rest of the country.

* These were, in order, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Seattle, Jersey City, and Baltimore. In Washington, the transit share of total trips actually declined slightly mostly because of an even more significant increase in population and shifts to biking and working from home. In Baltimore and Los Angeles, the share of people driving alone to work increased slightly because of reduced carpooling.

Cities with the largest number of transit commuters.

PlaceTransit commuters 2014Transit share 2014Change in transit commuters 2005-2014Percent change 2005-2014
New York City2,231,97857%359,63819%
Los Angeles197,77111%26,56116%
San Francisco163,53934%38,65031%
Jersey City62,67249%16,67636%
Remainder of the U.S.4,034,5223%700,87721%
Source: U.S. Census, means of transportation to work.

50 replies on “America’s car obsession will not be diminished by Millennials alone”

You wrote, “A stronger political argument, adopted by people and by politicians around the goals of improving our climate and of improving our communities…”

How does transit improve suburban communities? I mean, what arguments might you try to convince suburban councillors and village managers to support working with their local transit agencies (assuming one exists) to facilitate transit service in that municipality?

More sustainable financially, healthier, more connected (interpersonally not mobility) to neighbors and community. Some of these are definitely hard to measure.

I think the problem is that “How does transit improve suburban communities?” and “What arguments might you try to convince suburban councillors and village managers to improve transit?” do not have the same answers a lot of the time. For me, the mandate to promote transit–or at least, stop promoting car use–has to do with social equity and environmental sustainability. (And, to a lesser extent, that evidence suggests non-car-dependent neighborhoods really are under-provided compared to demand.) But those are not necessarily answering to local politicians’ political exigencies in the same way that the millennial argument is.

Isn’t the first challenge then to work to level the playing field between transit investments and roadway expansion/driving? As long as it’s comparatively far easier to plan and fund roadway expansion vs transit modernization (even leaving transit expansion aside), it’s hard to see how transit can achieve large scale even medium-term gains while the incentives still heavily favor roadways so heavily.

“.. how to convince people to change the machinery of government so that roadway expansion isn’t the easier choice.”

Los Angeles County voters experienced that widening freeways to 10-12-14 lanes does not provide long-term traffic congestion. So in the 2008 election, LA Rapid Transit started getting the lion’s share of the sales tax hike for Transportation.

A big caveat of course is that LA reached Freeway end-game with the best system in the world, yet the America’s worst freeway congestion. Must every American city reach Freeway System end-game before they make Rapid Transit + Buses a priority?

Texas cities apparently have to go well beyond Freeway System endgame — they’re continuing to expand freeways to 25, 30 lanes for no good reason.

Part of this is cultural. And *regional* cultural.

I think the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and California are more interested in restoring walkability than Texas or the South are. (The Midwest is somewhere in between.) Contrast Atlanta (big city) with Rochester (small, depopulated city) and you find Rochester is more interested in walkability. Which is contrary to what you’d expect based on size of city and age of population alone.

I have a story about this coming out tomorrow, about the distribution of CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) funds in Chicagoland. In essence, while CMAP (the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO) is devoting more of the funds to transit when compared to roads, they don’t take into account induced travel.

It is worth noting that per capita VMT is still well below pre-recession peaks. (even if that fact does not impact your core points)

Two separate points:

1. As Bob Roberts notes, per capita vkm is still below peak. In general, what’s been happening is that since the 1990s, vkm growth in the US has been notably below economic growth; in the 1990s, economic growth was fast, so vkm growth was positive if muted, but more recently growth has been slower, pushing vkm growth below zero. The challenge is then how to keep suppressing vkm growth relative to economic growth: the same pattern of slower vkm growth is observed in the core European countries, but in many of those, the gap between vkm and GDP growth is larger, so even when there’s satisfactory growth (not right now, but pre-2008), motorization growth is flat.

1.5. US fuel taxes are too low, by a factor of 10 or so. Besides leading to twice the per capita fuel consumption of most of Europe, it also leads to larger swings based on oil prices.

2. I don’t think your factoids about suburbanization of jobs are thaaaat relevant. So, okay, only a quarter of US jobs are within 5 km of the notional CBD. But the US transit mode share is not 25%; it’s about 4%. Likewise, only a quarter of Americans identify as urban, but this identification is more tribal than economic or geographic. In suburbs where the population is completely urban in the senses that there are no farms around, and people commute to work in the CBD or in an edge city, people do not identify as urban. To them, “urban” means “those people” – usually blacks and other minorities, but sometimes also white people who they perceive as too culturally weird. By any notions of urbanity that go back to when the developed world had a large rural population, the US is at least 80% urban. If you look at metro region, the median American lives in Indianapolis (or did a few years ago), whose metro population is about 2.3 million, the same as Stockholm and Prague. The problem with the US isn’t that Americans don’t live in big cities; it’s that Americans do not think 2 million is enough of a big city to have a large transit system.

“The problem with the US isn’t that Americans don’t live in big cities; it’s that Americans do not think 2 million is enough of a big city to have a large transit system.”

This surprises me every time I visit a town in Germany of 300,000 and it has several dozen miles of tram or light rail lines, in addition to frequent bus service. Oh, and operated by private companies.

Back in the 1980s, I interviewed a West German consular official in San Francisco about how friends who had been to Germany marvelled at all the tram, metro and suburban electric railways every significant city had. They told me (a railfan) “You’d love it over there!” I learned that driver licensing was a lot stricter in Germany, and cars had to be inspected at regular intervals, a process that took more than a day. Even cosmetic body damage had to be repaired–no primer splotches. Then we add that gasoline is about twice as expensive in Europe as in the US, and the plethora of transit lines makes sense.

Isn’t that mainly a density issue? Houston and Hamburg have about the same population size, but Hamburg has about twice the population density as Houston. Driving is also way more expensive in Germany, as is parking, so public transportation is much more attractive.

After the war Germany was on the path to emulate American style urban development guided by our planners. Within a very short time they reversed their plan and even restored projects that had been started. They restored their Strassenbahn systems and extended them into the countryside and, of course, rebuilt their wonderful intercity train (Bahn) system. They could only have accomplished this with a regional concept of planning that would be difficult to do have in the U.S. given our strong cultural values of individualism. At the present time 50 states which jealously guard their their own transportation ideas become an impediment to planning. Add to this the demonization of public government (as opposed to our obsessive dependence on private solutions to public problems) and we find ourselves muddling along with patchwork systems.

It’s hard for me to imagine that the US would have taken a different route. Given the sheer amount of undeveloped land here (allowing for ample sprawl-type development and also making parking much cheaper), the anti-urban sentiment the country has always had to some extent, and the fact that our auto industry was able to make cars much cheaper here than elsewhere, suburbanization was always an inevitability for America, at least from the auto age (1920s?) onward. The auto/suburbia model also dovetails quite nicely with our sense of individualism and it allows us to pretend we’re somehow still a nation of Jeffersonian yeoman farmers.

However, I think things maybe didn’t need to go as far as they did. A modernization project for our national rail system, had it been executed in the 50s-60s alongside the interstate highway system, may have left us with a train system—if not like Japan’s today—more like France or Germany’s in scope, service, and prestige. Cities could have been encouraged to salvage their streetcar systems, moving downtown routes either to exclusive rights-of-way or else putting them through tunnels in the city center, as Germany’s cities did with their “Stadtbahn” systems. Highways may have been forbidden or strongly discouraged from being allowed to penetrate city centers (as is largely the case in Canada and the UK), thus reducing the impetus to hollow out city centers and replace structures with parking lots and whole neighborhoods with surface or elevated highways. But maybe all of that was doomed to not ever happen from the start.

Today, it’s an uphill battle to move away from auto-centricity. Culturally, the suburbs exemplify America today. There’s a tremendous amount of force behind keeping things going as they are. I’m not sure what, if anything, will allow us to pivot to a different development and transportation model.

Maybe the lack of undeveloped land in the Northeast, and the geographic barriers (mountains!) separating undeveloped land from developed land in the Pacific Northwest and California, have made those regions more amenable to walkability?

Your post is a sobering message and a walk-up call. After having been in 18 US & Canadian cities in the past two months, my experience is that by and large the transit service on offer in most North American cities is simply not of the quality, and most importantly not of the frequency and accessibility that would make transit use a compelling option for many people. There are laudable exceptions such as San Francisco, Vancouver, BC and Toronto where, to paraphrase Jarrett Walker, frequency really is freedom. Other cities, such as Portland and Seattle, do a decent job but don’t quite get to the same level as the above-mentioned cities. The problem here is that those parts of those cities with decent transit service are increasingly only affordable to the very wealthy. Chicago’s system, as with many systems in the east of the US, shows the signs of massive underinvestment in routine maintenance with the result in Chicago of the frequent use of slow orders as a way to keep decayed infrastructure running. Relatively few cities are investing in transit expansion & development on a scale to make a real difference. Los Angeles, Toronto and Denver are exceptions where expansions underway could make an impact. In way too many cases, what transit does exist in suburban areas is of such low frequency and quality as to only appeal to those with absolutely no choice. And all too often, the “customer experience” of North American transit systems is really not communicating the message that transit is a mode of choice for the successful. Few transit systems, with the laudable exception of Houston, have been willing to move away from incremental improvements over time and develop a redesigned transit system that reflects the economic and locational realities of the city as it is now, now how it was 30 to 50 years ago. I think there needs to be a recognition that, without dramatic change, things are not likely to make a dramatic change for the better in the foreseeable future. It would also be worth looking north of the 49th parallel to Canadian cities to see how those cities get much higher mode share with much higher farebox recovery and lower per passenger subsidy levels than the US. Even small Canadian cities like Halifax, NS and Victoria, BC get over 10% transit commute mode share, figures rarely achieved even in large US cities.

Chicago had huge deferred maintenance, but they’ve managed to put a tonne of money in to catch up, and honestly, they’re close to being caught up.

New York is a disaster of deferred maintenance.

I am confused as to how the transit ## for SF were computed. Muni moves nearly the total figure on light rail/streetcars alone 50k+ on one bus corridor. BART moves 400k+ daily although not all within SF city limits. Are the NYC ## Manhattan only? subway only? As a 45 yr resident of Oakland, to me, SF is the Manh of the multi city Bay Area thus an East Bay commute is analagous to trips outside Manhattan but within any of the other boros.

These data are for individual workers from the Census, not total trips (though there is a virtually 1-to-1 correlation between transit mode share of workers and total transit riders when looking across cities). Each of those workers likely uses transit twice a day, plus there are many people who use transit for other needs outside of work.

I had the same question. The census really drives me nuts in this way how it asks for data. It’s the best data we have but it’s very lacking. It’s basically asking, what mode of work do you use the MOST. If someone walks or bikes 3 days a week and takes transit the other 2, they are walkers and bikers in the census’ eyes. Not only that, the census has gotten worse since they went to ACS and the sample sizes have gotten smaller. That’s not to take away from your commentary, it’s just a bit of data skepticism.

Baltimore seems to be an outlier with only a 3% increase in usage between ’05 and “14. It is also a city with serious social issues. Inability to get around for the carless must be a factor in coming to grip with social problems, among other other factors.

Since Baltimore killed the last of it streetcars in 1963, by American standards, it has been a heavy bus transit city. If Transportation Leadership hadn’t screwed up its Metrorail planning in the 1960s and 70s, Baltimore metro area would have a strong combination of bus and Metrorail to join the 30% transit usage club, like Washington and Boston. If anyone is interested, I have a document on Baltimore’s Missed Metrorail Opportunity and how it effects the city today.

As for police brutality & riots (euphemistically called “social issues”), Baltimore is no worse than a dozen other cities that staged legitimate police-brutality protests after the Ferguson and other incidents nationwide. Unfortunately for Baltimore and Ferguson, a small percentage of thugs exploited the cover of large crowds engaged in peaceful protest, to riot. Addressing the root of causes and solutions to such thuggery is a different subject for a different forum.

But one thing we have to face in American transit politics and this forum, is that irrational fear of other races (Racism) has and still produces poor transit decisions that have relegated less frequent buses to poor white/black/brown citizens and insufficient building Metrorail expansion in 35 Metro Areas larger than 1.5 million population that really need it.

Too many cities use codewords to mask such racism. My latest favorite is Beverly Hills rejecting Los Angeles Metrorail expansion through their city because “It makes Beverly Hills an extraordinary Terrorist Target.” If it wasn’t part of a successful cover to prevent Metrorail expansion, such a irrational complaint would be laughable for its utter stupidity.

If you have a link to the document you mentioned, I would definitely be interested. I live in DC but often day-trip to Baltimore and it’s interesting to imagine how different Baltimore would be with stronger transit. As it is, I’ve found Baltimore to be surprisingly car-dependent for such a dense, urban city (more urban-feeling than DC, for sure, at least in terms of its built form). Reportedly, one of the reasons that the new Maryland governor cancelled the Baltimore Red Line project but not the Purple Line project in the DC ‘burbs was reportedly because statistics showed that people were more likely to ride a light rail line in the burbs of DC than in urban Baltimore. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s an interesting allegation.

The Loosh,
The corridors containing Baltimore’s Red Line is a special case that for many reasons, should be funded before the Purple Line around DC’s suburb. The governor is either unaware of those facts or playing politics that ignore 50 years of broken promises that helped create mush of the despair seen in West Baltimore. I know first hand because I lived next to the disastrous Baltimore Westside Freeway.

He’s playing politics. He knows Baltimore won’t vote for him anyway, but suburban Maryland around DC might, so he made a calculated and cynical move.

When you think about the major metro areas with good or respectable transit service with comprehensive coverage throughout the area, there are only a few of them in the US. Using Primary Statistical Areas for ease of use, those are New York, LA-Orange County-Inland Empire, Chicago, Baltimore-Washington, San Francisco Bay Area, Boston and Philadelphia. That’s roughly 86 million people out of 321 million, 27% of the population.

While places like Kansas City, Tampa, and Charlotte have pockets of transit friendliness near center cities, we forget that many millennials take jobs in the service sector at big box stores, chain restaurants, and the like. There are just as many, if not more, millennials in health care than in finance, insurance, and real estate or in technology, and health care is widely distributed within a metro area and may have odd hours or be located in auto friendlier areas.

There is not ‘comprehensive’ transit coverage throughout a Primary Statistical Area. e.g. the New York statistical area is massive, and includes many places where almost everybody drives. The figure that 27% of the population lives in areas with good transit coverage is threfore totally erroneous.

The estimate makes up for the people in places like Portland, Seattle, Madison, and Houston who have transit service (although it doesn’t cover the PSA). Every county in the New York PSA has bus service, and most have commuter rail services. That’s better than places like Round Rock, TX or the suburbs of places like Oklahoma City which have no transit at all.

Calwatch, SFB has a point. The real impact of good transit is felt in and close to the 5 boroughs of NY and immediately across the Hudson River in Jersey City-Newark. Most of suburban NYC is auto-centric like the rest of America.

In greater LA, San Bernardino or Riverside counties do not have good transit service. Orange County also has lousy bus frequency and voted down Light Rail. Prior to its recently built ARTIC station, Orange County did not care much about Amtrak or commuter rail either. Orange County has instead, mastered the art of building 8-10-lane congested freeways that convert to 12-14-lane congested freeways.

Even when America builts good Transit infrastructure, we have underutilized it after World War II. Most of America skipped the opportunity to convert from “Transit Cities” to “Transit-Auto Cities” due to:

• America’s Auto-Tire-Oil Consortium that destroyed streetcars for ROW, then replaced them with slow buses, 1945-63
• Vietnam War depressed US Transportation funding; with the powerful Highway and Aviation Lobbies dominating Transportation fund allocation, many Urban Mass Transit Admin projects went unfunded or under-funded, 1964-72
• Reagan-Bush I admins cut Transit funding as a percentage of GDP, 1982-1992
• Bill Clinton admin failed to return Transit funding back to Ford admin & Carter admin levels, 1993-2000
• Bush II admin cut Transit funding as a percentage of GDP, 2001-2008

Imagine an America, that instead of destroying streetcars from 1945-63, built/expanded more tunnels & aerials for Rapid Transit when streetcar ROW was available and labor was relatively cheap. After Vietnam War under-investment, Ford & Carter admins could have built rapid transit in 30 cities, not just the first rapid transit lines in San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, Atlanta, Baltimore and Miami, along with more rapid transit expansion in NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philly and Cleveland. The Rail & Bus Transit Lobby would have been stronger during the Reagan-Bush I-Clinton-Bush II period to reduce bus service cuts. Today, more frequent bus service would feed popular rail rapid transit stations, like they do in Canada, Europe and Mexico City.

By building many tunnels and aerials for Rapid Transit systems before 1945, NYC, Boston, Chicago and Philly established Transit Cultures. So I exclude from them from the next comparison of missed post-World War II opportunities.

Canada has an oil-driven, 1st world economy like America. Toronto opened its first rapid transit system in 1954 and Montreal opened its first rapid transit system in 1966. Montreal and Toronto Metro systems have fewer miles and 22-23 fewer stations than Washington Metro system, yet attract 4.5 times more Patrons Per Mile Rapid Transit Usage. Montreal and Toronto Patrons Per Mile Rapid Transit Usage completely blow way our next best Metro systems in San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Ditto for Vancouver and Edmonton Metro system comparisons to Seattle, Baltimore, Denver and Miami.

Given our under-utilization of good Metro systems in Washington, SF Bay Area and Atlanta, we need more than Millennial preference for Transit to increase Patrons Per Mile Rapid Transit Usage. Outside, NYC, Boston, Chicago and Philly, Americans must somehow regain the collective value that good Transit is a Vital Public Utility like our Highways and Airports.

With regard to San Bernardino and Riverside counties, I would like to point out that huge San Bernardino county is mostly desert with organized transit only on its western edge. Riverside county is also heavily desert with transit in the Riverside suburban area and Palm Springs area (with little or no transit in between).

San Diego has pretty comprehensive coverage as well. And Minneapolis-St. Paul is actually pretty extensive. But on the whole your list is complete. :-P

I’ve have rode San Diego’s Light Rail system from end to end and driven every freeway corridor in San Diego. Based o the growing congestion I see in this 3.4 million metro area, San Diego needs Light Rail extension to:

Old Town to UC San Diego to I-805
Old Town to Ocean Beach or Mission Beach
La Jolla to UC San Diego.
I-15 to I-805 Corridor while intersecting two current lines

Playing it cheap with the South Bay BRT instead of Light Rail will cost far more in the long run.

The difference between a car-centric US in the present day compared to the past is that we are currently investing in neither roads nor transit. The major transit systems may have a backlog of maintenance that is impacting their operations, but the road system is definitely fraying around the edges as well. Since the roads are heavily used, usage continues to grow, and no capacity is being added, the system is rapidly filling up. In mid-sized cities like Nashville, congestion is beginning to become a serious issue and even in smaller cities like Tulsa, OK, roads are becoming increasingly crowded. As the road system reaches its capacity and there continues to be very limited funding to expand it, cities may have no choice but to implement more efficient and economical options like express bus service along major corridors. HOT lanes are already becoming an increasingly common solution to this funding conundrum in order to increase the efficiency of highway use. Thus, ironically, Congress’s inaction and penny-pinching may slowly lead to a more transit-dependent nation. It may not come in the form of shiny new rail lines, but it may happen nonetheless, out of desperation.

I’m not sure how any argument about decreasing car use, whether focused on the millennials, climate change, equity, or any other rationale, can succeed when the fact is we have developed, over a period of 70 years, a land use pattern that is almost completely oriented around automobiles for medium and long-distance trips.

I’d love to see a sea change in both transportation and land-use policy, but we know it will take 50+ years to revise our urban and suburban structures to be more oriented towards transit (and biking and walking). And, as this whole discussion suggests, most regions are nowhere near beginning this kind of radical transformation.

But the real challenge is this. In less than the next 50 years, indeed in the next 20 years, we will see a revolution, not an evolution, in transportation systems as autonomous electric vehicles become the norm. Perhaps I am just buying into the hype, but I see the arguments about pollution, climate change, congestion (and it’s impacts on economic activity), and even equity being made moot by this change in how the entire automobile transportation system works. In short, is a decentralized, suburban land-use model still a bad thing when it does not have the economic and environmental externalities that are so real (and so ignored) as they are today?

There is indeed, a real difference between the few, large and dense urban centers (NYC, Chicago, SF, etc.) and the rest of the country: small and medium cities, suburbs and rural areas included. There is still a role for major transit system in the densest urban centers, but I’m not so sure about what the role of the medium to low ridership bus routes is in the long term. And as a professional in the transit industry, that has me feeling a bit like a buggy whip maker these days.

I’m happy to hear the counter arguments….

I also remain very skeptical that the US will move to a Euro-style emphasis on public transportation and pedestrian and cycling as modes of travel. Despite all the talk of a fundamental shift in American development patterns, the suburban pattern pretty much continues unabated in the most rapidly growing parts of the country. Even if it didn’t, the vast majority of the current built environment is of this type. Despite some New Urbanist fantasies, I don’t think that it will simply be abandoned and left to rot even if rising fuel prices made it no longer tenable, nor do I think there will be much “retrofitting” of suburbia.

I’m a little more skeptical of the role of electric cars to significant cut down the cost of per-mile auto transportation. If fuel prices continue to rise, electric may become competitive, but competitive doesn’t necessary mean “cheap by some arbitrary standard”. Electric isn’t necessary a game-changer for environmentalism, if the electric cars are powered by coal plants they aren’t any cleaner than petroleum-powered cars.

Autonomous cars will definitely shift the argument towards maintaining the current low-density sprawl model we have now. The argument will be made that we already have the infrastructure for it (which is true), so we should just use that rather than try to radically re-order the US built environment with New Urbanism, sprawl retrofits, new rail and BRT systems, etc. Self-driving cars will allow us to continue the “drive till you qualify” house-selection model even more than today, since the “driving factor” will have been eliminated and travel times much reduced, the only remaining factor will be per-mile driving costs.

There are a lot of unknowns here, like will autonomous cars really cut down that much on travel times (what about induced demand?), will per-mile driving costs go down due to electric vehicles, etc.

In this scenario, as the current US sprawl model is maintained or even “ramped up”, cycling and walking will continue to be the poor stepchildren of transportation and transit infrastructure, as a low density environment will make them unfeasible. Driving and suburbia are deeply baked-in to US culture, and I think we’d rather maintain that by investing in autonomous vehicles and updating our electric power generations and electric grid rather than make fundamental shifts towards redeveloping the US along pre-WW2 lines with centralized populations and job centers. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a good path to go down, but I sometimes think a lot of New Urbanist talk is just whistling past the graveyard.

The cynic in me generally agrees with what you’ve said. One part I don’t agree with you is about our capacity for leaving vast swaths to rot because that’s what we did with the central parts of our cities for the last 75 years. I see a gradual rebuilding of these central areas because there already IS demand for development. I do however see a lot of current development catering to people with no kids who want to live next to restaurants (ie young people without kids). Will these people stay in the center when they have families and kids? Yet to be seen. In Europe it’s more accepted to be denser (less expectation of yards, owning 1 car per adult, etc.). Has this panned out in the US? Based on my personal experience, my answer is no and my opinion why is that developers have been focused on high end stuff for young people w/no family not for families.

I think more educated American couples that move to denser areas wouldn’t have as much as a problem with space (as in raising their kids in comfortable apartments) as much as they have a critical and unsurmontable problem with the quality of public schools and other child-related facilities (day care centers etc.)

As people with money move back to the center cities, the center city schools will become better and the outer suburbs will become the “bad schools”. Basically, school quality follows money.

It’s already happening. With the center cities populated by the very rich, it’s happening fast.

The real question is what we’re going to do about suburban poverty. Rural poverty is already nightmarish, and suburban poverty could end up being a copy of that but without the ability to feed yourself off the farm…

Self driving cars will actually be slower than human-driven cars.

Because they will be required to drive safely.

They won’t do anything for congestion and they will be slower.

But they will be safer and more comfortable, so that’s nice.

The present (Oct.) issue of the newsletter: Jim Hightower’s Lowdown, has an excellent argument for the need for HSR and reasons for the opposition to it. His identification of ideological issues driving opposition is well taken.

Why the obsession with eliminating America’s car obsession? It will never go away and it is pointless to waste effort on such a goal. I think that a more important goal is to improve transit in general across America and not to fight the automobile. Good public transit is a superior form of transportation for many, but not all, transportation needs and therefore is good in itself.

America treats urban public transportation as a social program and not as an infrastructure component. That is the issue.

I live in Chicago and I love my two cars. And I ride the El and Metra commuter rail and Amtrak and fly on airplanes too. (I only ride my bicycle for recreation on bike paths; personally I feel that riding on the Chicago streets is dangerous. Bless those who do, but I won’t do it.) I chose each method of transportation based upon the transportation need typically based upon cost, time and speed.

Cost, time and speed drive most peoples transportation choices and trying to convince people to make transportation choices outside of these criteria is a fruitless and pointless effort.

By the way, your chart showing the drop, plateau and slow rise in miles driven corresponds precisely with economic activity after the 2008 Great Recession. Any attempt to tie it to the effect of Millenial’s transportation choices in nothing more than smug generational hubris.

Look at a chart of vmt per *capita*, and it becomes obvious that younger people are driving less. Remember, population’s still going up. I don’t know why Yonah didn’t include that chart.

BarryB, Congrats on having rapid transit and Amtrak for good, cost, time and speed options that most Americans dod not enjoy. What most of this forum argues for is the need to increase rapid transit and Amtrak-HSR options so we don’t have to “over-indulge” in car-centric behavior. Finding a good balance of transportation options like Chicago, Boston, Washington and San Francisco are worthy goals.

Thank you for covering this important issue. My co-author Julie Coates and I in 2010 were the first ones to prove (in Kiplinger’s, Advertising Age, then Yahoo etc.), using DOT data Gen Y was driving 37% fewer miles than previous generations of young people. However, the decline in driving among Gen Y began in 2001, as documented by that year’s DOT household survey, well before any gas, recession or other events. While we agree with all your points, we would also suggest that there will be a significant ramping up of light rail and train construction in the next decade, especially as the for-profit sector takes over running the trains. The other aspect you missed is the historical parallel. 100 years ago Iowa had only one mile of paved road, Henry Ford’s own banker said the “auto is just a fad,we will always have the horse and buggy,” and my 1916 encyclopedia makes no mention of cars replacing the horse and buggy. And yet….

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