Calpirg: We’re Driving Less

Transportation New Generation coverThe California Public Interest Research Group‘s recent A New Direction report finds that we’re driving less than we used to here in the US. Despite all of the glossy car ads and ill-advised in-cabin entertainment systems today, consumers are increasingly choosing not to drive. It’s generational, according to this study: ‘boomers’ are aging out of their usual commute or choose to retire near urban centers while younger folks spurn car ownership and even licensing altogether. CALPIRG asks, What does this mean for transportation policy when it’s so long favored motoring?

Vehicle miles traveled per capita chart
Vehicle miles traveled in the United States suggests the curling of the wave!

Think of it as a curl in the near-century long wave of increased interest in motoring among the American public. Our love affair with the automobile has opened new land to habitation and afforded successive generations to move about with unbridled autonomy. But nowadays that freedom to roam is attached to unsustainable fiscal costs. Motoring as an everyday transportation choice was affordable only because we provided public- and private-sector subsidies to oil, auto and construction interests. (Not to mention individual tax deductions for auto expenses.) But we can’t afford such policies any longer. Today the emphasis is on efficiency and cost-effectiveness (not withstanding billion-dollar freeway expansions).

Looking to get ahead of the policy curve is CALPIRG. This public interest organization is not a transportation advocacy group per se; rather it has crafted for itself a broad mandate to call out corporate-friendly policies wherever they “threaten our health and safety, our financial security or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.”

With tens of thousands of collision deaths on our roadways occurring every year, and with  a state and federal political system captured by big-money interests often friendly to motoring, it seems that encouraging a shift to alternative forms of transportation fit the organization’s mission.

While the forces that have historically shaped the transportation sector (and the mobility choices available) is not exactly new, the evolution in consumer attitudes toward motoring is new. Preferences are evolving and now look to other less-expensive, more practical mobility options. And that’s good news for those who want to ride a bicycle!

Changing Attitudes

16 -24 year olds with driver licenses chart
People aged 16 to 24 are less likely to get a license than they used to be.

Today young people simply care less about driving. So much so that they’re less likely than even just a few years ago to bother to get a license.

Indeed the National Household Travel Survey data (as analyzed by A New Direction) shows that the turn away from driving in America is led by younger people. Of vehicle miles driven annually between 2001 and 2009 by 16-to-34 year olds, for example, vehicle miles traveled decreased to only 7,900 per person (a drop of one-quarter over that period). At the same time, a greater proportion of young folks were likely to choose to walk (up 16% from 2001), to bike (up 24%), and/or to take transit (up a whopping 40%) than to drive.

The CALPIRG study finds evidence that this shift goes beyond economics to point to changing cultural predispositions as the long-term influence on motoring trends. More often these days, for example, young folks choose to live where they can walk or ride a bicycle (which is foremost a lifestyle choice). They’re also reaching for other mobility options which suggests a new calculation of mobility utility. And perhaps most important (and enduring) they’re bringing a new environmental awareness to their choice-making.

CALPIRG last year explored the decline in interest among young people in a very readable report titled Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People Are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy. Looking more closely at the data, they found that in the 16 to 34 years cohort, households with annual incomes of over $70k were 37% more likely to walk, 100% more likely to take mass transit, and 122% more likely to get in the saddle than in 2001.

Mobility trends tableFinding a strong correlation between mobility choice and income underscores the broad-based turn away from everyday motoring. It is not only the less-fortunate who shift travel to other modes but also the more fortunate among us too. So pervasive is the cultural change that CALPIRG documented in detail how changing attitudes are affecting our choices (right).

Indeed for CALPIRG, the changing mobility preference of the younger generation heralds a new era for transportation policy for which we, as a society, might not be fully prepared:

America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people—and Americans overall—throw that assumption into doubt. Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy—dominated by road building—is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans.

We agree. We’ve been advocating for a new paradigm here at the local level, in Beverly Hills, where our land use and transportation policies are still shackled to the old paradigm. Consider our municipal code: it requires of new developments too much off-street parking. The code makes facile nod to the need for supportive services like bike storage and shower facilities for commuters, but then basically excuses nearly every large employer in the city from complying. Of course our lion’s share of roadway investment is still plowed into renewing the blacktop without intersection improvements or facilities to make cycling safe. Is that any way to plan?

Better Facilities Encourage Cycling

Transportation scholars John Pucher (Rutgers) and Ralph Buehler (Virginia Tech) find that stepping out from behind the wheel and into the saddle is hardly an American phenomenon. Not only is it happening across the globe, but America actually lags behind the rest of the Western world in looking beyond the automobile to the bicycle for everyday transportation.

Popularity of cycling by nation chart
The US lags Western nations in the embrace of alternative modes of mobility, Pucher and Buehler find.

Surveying rates of cycling and infrastructure innovations in their new book, City Cycling (MIT Press), Pucher & Buehler find the greatest gains in Northern Europe, of course, where the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Sweden have all made great inroads in encouraging folks to ride even in the winter.

And looking within those countries, Pucher & Buehler find much higher rates of cycling among the groups least likely to embrace cycling here in the US, particularly women and older residents. (Most strikingly, they find that the share of trips taken by bike actually increases with rider age, not counting the initial large bump among younger cohorts.) These groups are often under-represented among cyclists; when they choose to ride it says something about the safety of cycling.

Cycling to the Future PPT coverAs they highlight in a PowerPoint presentation of their findings, the key is that countries where cycling is most broadly popular have created conditions for safe cycling. Cycling should be no different than motoring: both require that safety be made a priority in order to engineer roadways to safely accommodate all road users. The Europeans know it; their roads reflect the philosophy. Here in the States, much attention has focused on reducing America’s appallingly-high roadway death rates. Cars are better and targeted enforcement has reduced the incidence of DUI. But only recently have we begun to think about making streets safe for cyclists.

How can we make our streets safe for cyclists? Well, the couple of improvements we’re making in Beverly Hills under the Pilot program is a start. But there’s much, much more we can do – and the models and templates exist today. View this excerpt from the Pucher/Buehler PowerPoint presentation, Cycling to the Future: Lessons from Cities across the Globe [big pdf] for an overview of best practices.

According to CALPIRG, it’s a bright future ahead of us. “A future of stabilized demand for driving is one in which roads last longer and are cheaper to maintain, traffic congestion remains stable or declines, America is less dependent on oil, and our cars produce less pollution.” Yet it is urgent that we face the changing nature of transportation demand and preferences among the public because it will exact unknown pressures on our current transportation policies.

Highway User Revenues versus Expenditures chart
Revenues captured by the Highway Trust Fund no longer covers the necessary investment in our roads and bridges.

Consider the way we fund roads and public works projects like freeways. Today they’re funded by the gas tax. But we’re driving less, and we’re driving more efficiently. Where will that money come from?

We will have to look ahead to a different paradigm, the CALPIRG report says, because there’s no going backwards:

The changing transportation priorities of the Millennial generation, the advance of new technology, and other changes provide an opportunity for the United States to create a new transportation policy that meets the needs of the 21st century. To achieve that goal, however, the nation must integrate our growing understanding of recent changes in transportation trends into every aspect of transportation decision-making, from the ways in which we estimate future transportation funding needs to the ways in which we choose our investment priorities.

CALPIRG concludes in its A New Direction report report:

We may not know the exact shape of the future, but it is increasingly likely that it will look very different from the past. By retiring Driving Boom-era assumptions and policies that no longer serve the nation’s needs, we can build a transportation system that is more affordable, more efficient and more sustainable for the long haul.

Amen to that!