Are We Shedding Urban Driving?

us cars highwayThe long term trend of car dependence has been a source of growing debate among scholars and enthusiasts, whether or not the shift to the millennial generation is marked by a decrease in car ownership and a change in driving patterns. Given the rippling effects that significant declining car use could have on the American economy and its development moving forward, eyes are watching closely to see whether or not its actually happening.

So are we driving less? U.S. PIRG says, “yes.” According to a recent report that compiled data from 100 urban locations around the U.S. from 2006-2011, the once unquestionable dedication to cars seems to be retreating across the country.

In a sweeping glance across the nation, the study found a decrease in the proportion of workers commuting by private vehicle in 99 of the 100 metro areas. 86 cities boasted a decrease in households with more than two cars while 84 reported an increase in the percentage of households without cars at all (I am one of those myself). As of 2011, 9.3% of the households in America were carless.

car driving decline chart

The majority of the country also saw decreases in vehicle miles traveled per capita and an increase of transit passenger miles per capita. In spite of the recession, the past five to seven years have seen new transit projects open up in cities across the country. Amtrak has seen its ridership increase year over year, peaking at yet another record in fiscal 2013 with 31.6 million passengers–“its tenth ridership record in eleven years.”

Driving Forces of Decline

The quick and easy answer that most of us would jump to for why driving has been decreasing is the recession. After all, the data even points to 2007 being the peak of vehicle miles driven in America, right before the beginning of the financial downturn. The report, however, says no, arguing that driving has declined more steeply in areas less affected by the recession. I am not totally convinced on this point, thinking that persistent unemployment has to have provided at least some of the impetus for people driving less.

driving decline by US city

The study contends that other forces are responsible for curbing Americans’ desire to get behind the wheel including:

  • Demographic change of aging baby-boomers, leaving families with fewer years transporting kids around
  • Rising price of gasoline
  • Rising use of alternative transportation
  • Increase in working remotely / from home
  • A waning desire for people to spend extended hours every day commuting in a car

Cars, and how we use them (or not), will be one of the defining variables of our society’s energy use over the course of the coming decades. In many ways, our cultural footprint and its resulting energy use have been built around utilizing automotive mobility. The evolution of our urban street grids as well as the birth and growth of the suburban model represent an archetype that places the majority of travel responsibility on the shoulders of cars. The report correctly notes:

“Over the last century, the United States has built a policy infrastructure that gives cars top priority in addressing transportation problems. Local planning and zoning rules often prevent compact, mixed-use development and require developers to provide copious amounts of parking (passing the costs along to customers and workers) without providing similar access to transit riders, bikers and pedestrians.”

Here, here.

We are at a point where we can reassess a series of questions at the same time: where we drive, how we drive, what we drive and why we drive. The answer to each question can influence the outcome of the rest.

How much space we allocate to driving as opposed to other forms of transit can reshape our street grids both inside and outside of our cities, giving way to stronger communities and street-level commerce.Whether or not the country makes a broader migration to electric or plug-in-hybrid-electric vehicles could affect distances people tend to travel and how our cars play a key role in our national power grid. I recently looked into how much more efficient it would be for us to burn our oil for electricity used for driving rather than burning it in internal combustion engines as gasoline.

The authors of the report and I see eye-to-eye on recommending the path forward:

“A rethinking of transportation plans using the best, most current information is likely to reveal that many projects no longer make sense, as well as new priorities that demand increased investment. Short term and long-term transportation plans are filled with highway projects that were planned under very different expectations of future travel growth. Many of these “legacy projects” were originally proposed decades ago, and approved based on assessments of future travel since shown to be incorrect.”

Cities First, Then Beyond

It is true that decreasing car miles traveled in American cities is an easier task than trying to do the same in the suburbs outside of them. Even the country’s densest cities like New York still have an amazing amount of untapped pedestrian, biking and transit mobility that could be realized through a redefinition of how the acreage of the urban grid is used. In the grand scheme of how the city functions an evolution away from car-centric agendas to those that focus on pedestrians (the true lifeblood of any successful urban environment) is feasible over a number of years.

Cities also account for a large chunk of Americans and over the past decade they have been growing faster than the population of the country over all. The U.S. PIRG report claims that the 100 cities it includes in its report includes 53 percent of the nation’s citizens. But what about the rest?

The suburban archetype is not so easily altered. It is a bit of a different animal. The solutions proposed by New Urbanists like Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson could add density to our existing suburbs, but the veins of transit are still inherently tied to car travel, making deeper infrastructural changes necessary to give people a viable possibility of a “car-optional” neighborhood.

Image Credit: courtesy of U.S. PIRG