Will we be driving less? And how should policy adapt?
2013-06-04:A report by environmental groups declares that "The driving boom - a six decade long period of steady increases in percapita driving - is over." That is old news to most people in the toll business, although state DOTs and Washington DC lobby groups pushing for more gas tax money continue to project their "needs" as if the longterm trend is unchanged - business as usual.
"A New Direction" the report by Tony Dutzik of Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall of US PIRG provides a readable and compelling analysis of trends in graphical form. (Though we prefer tables like the VMT and VMT/capita table we put together nearby)
They say: "Americans drive fewer total miles today than we did eight years ago, and fewer per person than we did at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term. The unique combination of conditions that fueled the Driving Boom—from cheap gas prices to the rapid expansion of the workforce during the Baby Boom generation—no longer exists."
Overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in America peaked in 2007 at 3,013b and in 2012 were 2,939b, a 3% drop. US percapita driving (VMT/capita) went from 10,062 miles in 2007 to 9,361 in 2012, down 700 miles or 7%.
Dutzik and Baxandall: "Americans drive no more miles in total today than we did in 2004 and no more per person than we did in 1996."
The peak of percapita driving appears to go back a decade now - to about 2001, 2002. The decline was rather slight at first, through 2007, but a definite change from the driving boom years. From 1960 to 2000 percapita driving had approximately doubled.
Dutzik & Baxandall say a return to the steady growth in per-capita driving that characterized the Driving Boom years is unlikely because of
1. the aging of the Baby Boom generation
2. the projected continuation of high gas prices
3. anticipated reductions in the percentage of Americans in the labor force
4. the peaking of demand for vehicles and driver’s licenses and
5. the amount of time Americans are willing to spend in travel
Roads-guy Pisarski predicted
In the 1990s a conservative analyst Alan Pisarski predicted a peaking in percapita VMT based simply on how automobile ownership was almost universal in America by the end of the century. Further additions to the vehicle fleet were likely to be much smaller, he argued presciently, than in the decades before when car ownership was expanding to women and reaching steadily down to lower income groups.
When income groups and women who'd never had cars were getting them for the first time that alone added to driving each year. Now we're pretty fully 'carred' the number of drivers isn't growing as before.
Fracking may drop gas prices
In Dutzik and Baxandall's list of five, item 2 is doubtful.
High gasoline prices are by no means assured, if only because the 'fracking' revolution in oil and gas drilling seems likely to put vast new reserves of petroleum products on world markets. That has to be a major factor depressing prices.
Demographics like the aging of the big-driving generation dubbed 'baby boomers (born 1945 to 1965) and their replacement by Gen-X (born 1965 to 1983) and milllennials (born 1983 on) are claimed by Dutzik & Baxandall to be a major dynamic in reduced percapita VMT.
The authors cite National Household Survey data to the effect that the 16 to 34 year olds showed a dramatic drop in percapita miles traveled, going from 10,300 miles in 2001 to 7,900 miles in 2009 - off 23%. But part of this might be the disproportionately heavy burden of the 2007 financial crisis and great recession, rather than any much reduced desire to drive among this age group. Not only have they been very hard hit by the more competitive labor markets, but many have larger student loans to pay off too.
But Dutnik & Baxandall make the point that younger people driving less than the baby-boomers starting well before the recession in 2007. And 30% of under 24 year olds don't have drivers licenses compared to only 20% in the 1980s.
And they claim the numbers show younger people with jobs are driving less, not only those afflicted by the morose economy: "Among 16 to 34 year-olds with jobs, per-capita vehicle travel declined by 16 percent (2001 to 2009.)"
"Driving and economic growth have diverged: After moving in lockstep for decades, trends in economic growth and growth in vehicle travel have diverged in recent years, with per-capita GDP generally growing faster than per-capita vehicle travel since the late 1990s, suggesting that economic growth and vehicle travel are no longer as closely correlated as they once seems to be.
"The recent recession no doubt reduced the number of miles young Americans drove, but the economy is clearly not the only factor at play. Members of the Millennial generation have expressed a greater willingness to pursue less auto-oriented lifestyles than previous generations, and have been the first to grow up with access to the mobile Internet-connected technologies that are reshaping society and how people connect with one another. These changes could be playing a role in the dramatic reduction in driving among young Americans."
The internet and the communications revolution seems to be having its biggest impact in the age groups doing less driving. Shopping online becomes a substitute for car trips previously made to stores. Perhaps texting, tweeting, and sending photos and videos substitutes for a proportion of personal visits using a car. And with work too of course there will be continue to be a need to one-on-one and group meetings and for physical proximity for discipline and serendipitous interaction in an office setting. But less need. So at the margin more people will do more more work more often from home, or on the road. And that too will affect the commute, reducing it somewhat, and de-peaking it - with more people having options about the times of day they travel.
Dutzik & Baxandall go much further suggesting changes in values that make cars less attractive to millennials under the headline 'Fading Car Culture:'
They write: "Mobile communications and computers have supplanted cars as the most important technology in the lives of Millennials…. 35 percent of those aged 18 to 34 believe that losing their computer would have the greatest negative impact on them, with 30 percent saying that loss of their mobile phone would be most negative. Only 28 percent said the same thing about their car. Baby Boomers ranked these choices in the opposite order, with nearly half of those aged 55 and up reporting that losing their car would have the greatest negative impact on their life, while 31 percent said the same thing about their computer and only 7 percent said their mobile phone. Nearly two out of three college students responding to a 2011 survey by computer networking company Cisco said that they would choose an Internet connection over access to a car.
"Millennials are also less likely to express an interest in automobiles as a hobby or cultural phenomenon: less than 15 percent of Millennials describe themselves as “car enthusiasts” as opposed to 30 percent of Baby Boomers."
One can be skeptical about how deep this is.
Though smartphones and computers may now be ranked higher in stated importance than cars, it is only rarely a matter of one or the others. A personal fascination with the rapidly developing world of smartphones, tablets and computers is perfectly consistent with Millennials still wanting to take advantage of cars, though they may take them for granted, and not talk about them as much.
Dutzik and Baxandall again: "Millennials are demonstrating significantly different lifestyle and transportation preferences than older generations. They drive less on average than previous generations of young people. More of them say they wish to live in cities and walkable neighborhoods. And more of them are drawn to forms of transportation other than driving."
Downtowns being rediscovered
Of course some downtowns are being renovated ('gentrified' is another term) and attracting higher income people - something of a belated reaction to the boring suburban 'sprawl' that politicians and city planners have created for the past 80 or 90 years with their arbitrary minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, car parking mandates, overwide streets and single land use zoning.
Now being rediscovered and celebrated as 'walkable,' 'sustainable' and generally progressive are 'historic districts' in city centers created pre-planning and pre-zoning by hundreds of entrepreneurial landowners in which buildings could be used for various changing mixes of housing, restaurants, stores, churches, services and schools flexibly according to demand and in which property owners decided how much owner parking was needed and usually put it off an alley at the back. Buildings went right to the property line.
(TOLLROADSnews is operated in exactly such an area, the 'historic district' of Frederick MD, just one block from the Georgetown Gettysburg Turnpike and three blocks from the National Pike, Baltimore to the Ohio Territory. It was laid out by Annapolis resident Daniel Dulany as a real estate development in 1745 with a grid of north-south and east-west streets and 484 lots. Some lots were set aside for a courthouse, city hall, and churches, the rest were left to purchasers - mostly German settlers - to build what they saw fit. Located on strategic turnpikes between the ports of Baltimore and Ohio and between Georgetown and central Pennsylvania, with a reliable tributary of the Potomac for water, it thrived as a self-regulating 'town,' at a time Washington DC was an unpopulated swampland of Maryland. City government came to Frederick in 1816, 71 years after its founding.)
Walkable and carred
But "walkable" areas are only walkable for a small proportion of trips. Grocery shopping, home improvement stores, schools, most medical services almost all jobs still require a car. Require may be too strong a word. At least those trips are a hell of a lot quicker and more convenient with a car.
Dutzik and Baxandall's general conclusion on driving is cautious as expressed in a chapter head "Americans Will Drive Less than Was Predicted a Few Years Ago. How Much Less Is Uncertain."
They posit three reasonable scenarios for future driving:
- Back to the Future which attributes the drop in driving to the economy and that millennials enthusiasm for walkable smart growth will fade and the internet has little effect on driving
- Enduring Shift which assumes that driving habits remain more or less as they are now at 7% lower percapita than a decade ago
- Ongoing Decline percapita in which changes of the last decade are the beginning of a longer larger shift away from driving which will stabilize at a lower percapita level (p29)
The results are modeled and graphed (see blue, red and green projections in graph nearby)
All are lower than US and many state DOT forecasts, not to mention lobby groups such as ARTBA and AASHTO.
Critique by Cox
Well-known demographic consultant Wendell Cox has critiqued the Dutzik & Baxandall report. Census data he says don't really support the notion that significant numbers are going back to central cities to live. Reduced driving he claims is mainly a response to the huge increease in gasoline costs and fewer jobs. Transit ridership has risen ever so slightly - by 15 miles per person per year. This compares to about 900 miles fewer miles driven.
Working from home was the most dramatic change in 'mode.' At the recent rate it will soon surpass transit.
"Transit's failure to capture much of the decline in driving simply reflects the limitation of its effectiveness in taking people where they need to go. Transit is very effective in providing mobility to the nation's largest downtown areas, where it provides half to three quarters of the trips. Approximately 55 percent of all US transit commuting is to six transit legacy cities… New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington.
"Most of this commuting is to the compact and dense downtown areas.
Outside the transit legacy cities, transit's impact is slight, because of the "last mile" problem. Transit service is not close enough (or fast enough) to be practical for most trips in metropolitan areas…
There is no solving this problem, Cox says, because of the vast costs of such transit systems. Because they are almost never able to generate significant fare revenue they never pay their way. And our governments are running out of money to subsidize transit.
The Bureau of Census data show that millennials like others make >80% of work trips by car, less than 6% by transit and 2.6% work at home.
Cox plumps in effect for the Back to the Future scenario.
Our guess is lower - like somewhere between the Enduring Shift and Ongoing Decline.
But regardless, the government transportation agencies and politicians and road operators need to accept that it's highly improbable per capita driving will increase for the foreseeable future and more likely will drop.
But what does it call for?
Dutzik and Baxandall see this as an argument for dumping highway expansion, and using more motorist money for transit. That doesn't follow at all.
Highway expansion will still be needed:
- in areas of rapid population growth where the extra drivers on the roads swamps the effect of any lesser percapita driving
- to remove bottlenecks of existing congestion
- to provide missing links in highway networks and make them more efficient and resilient with some redundancy for emergencies
The posterchild for a continued focus on improving the performance of our roads with expansion is right under the noses of federal politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists - the Capital Beltway. No other metro arrea in the country of this size has a chokepoint as seriously vulnerable as the American Legion Bridge that carries the Beltway over the Potomac River northwest of DC (see picture and caption nearby.)
But expansion aside, highways need to be better maintained, operated and managed because they are an important contributor to the economy and quality of life. They need modernization whether traffic is down 10% or 20% or not at all. And the major arm of transit - buses - needs good roads too.
Rail transit is a minor niche mode and destined to get even less competitive as sensing, communications and traffic management technologies take us toward self-driving, self-parking vehicles.
The notion that vehicle guidance still requires flanged steel wheels on rails is nostalgic and reactionary - but it still has a grip on the minds of the likes of Dutzik and Baxandall.
Investments are best directed where users see aggregate value in projects that will cover costs with voluntary user fee payments and make a return on capital… we argue. And that's all highways.