Nov 4, 201311:11 AMTransportation Matters
with Debby Jackson
Reports of the death of the car culture have been greatly exaggerated
(page 1 of 2)
Ah, human beings. We are a funny lot. We just can’t stop ourselves from taking what can potentially be a positive development and leaping to claims that the world has changed forever. But as Mark Twain said, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
I am referring to the much-ballyhooed narrative that Millennials no longer like to drive cars. Headlines have sprung up across the country and here in Wisconsin parroting this theme: The New York Times — “Young Americans Lead Trend to Less Driving”; USA Today — “Young People Driving Less, Embrace Other Transportation”; Denver Post — “Demise of Our Car Culture?” Wisconsin Eye Newsmakers Show — “Decline of the Car Culture?”
I will grant you, it is a good story. Many of us are inclined to want to believe this story and see it as a positive thing. I hate to say this, folks, but we all need to take a breath before jumping to such sweeping conclusions.
Much of the reporting on this topic is tied to a study that was conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). The study is titled “Transportation and the New Generation.” The authors pulled statistics from several places, including the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), to produce this report.
At this point, I have to tell you as gently as I can that the U.S. PIRG and its Wisconsin chapter, WisPIRG, have, shall we say, a point of view. That’s fine, but it does need to be understood when digesting this information.
Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. are indeed down a bit from their peak in 2007. It is also true that there was a sharper decline in miles traveled by people between 16 and 34 than by us older folks.
It has been well documented over the years that the number of miles driven is directly linked to economic activity. As the economy sputters, the number of miles traveled flattens or goes down, and the converse holds true as well. It has also been well documented that younger people have been hit particularly hard by this economic downturn. While the U.S. PIRG gives a head nod to both of those facts, it blows right by them to assert, “There is now little room for doubt: many Americans’ transportation needs and desires are changing. And they are changing fastest among the people who have the most to gain or lose from the investments we make in new transportation infrastructure; the young.”
This is where I have to interject that there actually is some room for doubt whether we are witnessing a hard trend. In fact, UCLA published a report basically stating that we are not. I admit I have never been a Bruins fan. In fact, I cheered loudly both times the Badgers beat them in the Rose Bowl … but I don’t think that should necessarily diminish the university’s credibility, per se.
UCLA’s report is titled “What’s Youth Got To Do With It? Exploring the Travel Behavior of Teens and Young Adults.” I would strongly recommend clicking on the link to look at the entire report rather than just letting me tell you what it says … but in the authors’ own words:
Perhaps the most significant overall finding from this analysis is how little youth travel
behavior is deviating from that of adults, despite the enormous economic, social, technological, and policy changes over the past two decades. Specifically, we see little evidence in these data that living circumstances, technological innovations, or driving regulations are dramatically altering travel behavior. We do find that economic factors — specifically employment status, educational attainment, and household income — strongly affect youth travel behavior, but these factors strongly affect the travel of older adults as well.
I don’t wish to take the wind out of the sails of people who want to celebrate and promote alternative ways to get to work, such as walking, biking, or riding the bus. There are certainly plenty of stories of people young and old who are making those choices every day, and that is outstanding.
What is harmful is when groups like U.S. PIRG and WisPIRG pick numbers they like and couple them with anecdotal stories in order to claim that we simply don’t need to invest in new capacity for our roadways anymore.
In the introduction to the U.S. PIRG study, it contends, “Times have changed, however. The open road that once beckoned to an earlier generation of young people has been slowly replaced by congested highways traversing a landscape of urban sprawl.”
I am left to wonder how this group consistently talks about congested highways in the same breath that it claims we are overbuilding for capacity. But consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and few are smaller than mine, apparently.
The Wisconsin chapter uses this umbrella story to argue that Wisconsin is spending way too much on “new” capacity and is out of step with these emerging trends. The smoking gun that’s used to prove this point is the national chart below showing the changes in VMT from 1970 to 2010 (Wisconsin’s numbers are similar). The takeaway being that after decades of consistent growth, miles traveled crested in the mid-2000s.
Let’s look at this chart and think about the argument in real terms. Less than 10% of the state’s transportation budget is spent on additional highway capacity. The funds planned to be used for additional capacity will largely go to a handful of segments of the interstate system that have reached the end of their useful life and have to be rebuilt. The only question is, in the process of rebuilding, do we add capacity? Specifically, the projects are: the Zoo Interchange, I-94 from the Milwaukee Airport to the Illinois line, and I-39-90 from Madison to the Illinois line.
Each of these segments of interstate was built prior to 1970, where the chart above begins. Stop and think about that for a moment. That is prior to when that line on the chart above begins its ascent upward. Would it really be prudent to rebuild these urban stretches of interstate at the same capacity we did back then? The idea is that these “new” stretches need to last for the next 50 years.
By the way, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation just came out with the travel numbers for 2012, and guess what? As the economy begins to rebound, vehicle miles traveled are again on the uptick, having increased about 1%. That makes three of the last four years that they have increased in Wisconsin.