King Car on the Wane

December 08, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Blame it on the younger generation, new technology or the rising cost of car ownership, but America's century-long love affair with driving is losing its ardor. Evidence of this cultural shift to transit, nonmotorized mobility and fewer overall trips is broad and persuasive, and smart communities are responding to it.

Small towns in Arizona, Arkansas and Washington state, to name three featured in a recent Associated Press report, are narrowing wide main streets to make shopping more pedestrian-friendly. For example, the "road diet" in Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, boosted sales and prompted a dozen new businesses to open downtown.

In red and blue states alike, cities are building transit and bicycle infrastructure despite conservative complaints that doing so upsets the near-sacred autocentric order. Their arguments are increasingly out of touch with the diverse ways Americans are choosing to get around — or stay put and connect virtuallly.

Bicycling, walking and transit ridership are up in Minnesota and across the nation, while driving is stagnant or declining. The number of U.S. cars per person peaked in 2001 and per capita miles driven topped out in 2004, years before the Great Recession cut further into motoring's market share. No evil plot or government mandate explains this. It's clearly basic market economics: higher costs pushing people out of cars while substitute technologies built on wireless communication pull them out.

A General Motors study found that 46 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 would give up owning a car to maintain Internet access and that teenagers value texting messages via smartphones more highly that driving. Nowadays fewer than one-third of U.S. 16-year-olds are licensed drivers, compared with 50 percent in 1978. Smartphones "offer a degree of freedom and social reach that previously only the automobile offered," said automotive analyst Thilo Koslowski in a recent post

For older folks raised on 35-cents-a-gallon gasoline and new cars costing 38 percent of a year's pay (in 1969), this may seem beyond strange. But the Millenial generation looks at $3-plus gas and sticker prices averaging 71 percent of median annual earnings (in 2009) and thinks: "What a waste!" These figures come from a fascinating slide presentation gleaned from 40 years of the Census Bureau's National Household Travel Surveys by University of South Florida transportation scholars Steven E. Polzin and Xuehao Chu. Along with travel trends, they document rising cell phone ownership, Facebook accounts, web-based college courses and online shopping — all of which make driving less necessary.

It's not only tech-savvy 20-somethings saving big money by eschewing the auto. Taxpayers of all ages come out ahead with low-cost public infrastructure for bicycling and walking. Bike Walk Twin Cities is turning $13.2 million in federal grants into more than 75 miles of new bikeways and sidewalks, barely more than the $12.5 million it's costing to rebuild just 1¼. miles of Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis for motorists. Similarly, 260 miles of bikeways in Portland, Ore., were established over 15 years for $60 million, a figure that often buys no more than a mile of freeway.

As with most economic shifts, amid all the winners—including people breathing less polluted air—there are losers, too. Folks in auto-dependent fringe suburbs have seen their property values decline in barely a decade from the highest in the nation, a distinction now claimed by walkable, high-density neighborhoods in center cities and inner-ring suburbs.

Young adults and downsizing Baby Boomers have led this preference switch. A survey by the National Association of Realtors found that only one in eight future homebuyers wants the drivable suburban-fringe house now in such oversupply. "This lack of demand all but guarantees continued price declines," Brookings Institution senior fellow Christopher B. Leinberger wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. "Boomers selling their fringe homes will only add to the glut. Nothing the federal government can do will reverse this."

That's an interesting observation, given that the federal interstate highway program, despite all its benefits, was the chief instigator of suburban sprawl. Now, says Leinberger, "it was predominantly the collapse of the car-dependent suburban fringe that caused the mortgage collapse."

The Times paired Leinberger's essay with one by University of California-Berkeley Prof. Louise A. Mozingo that takes a hard look at another staple of driving-based sprawl. "Suburban offices are even more unsustainably designed than residential suburbs," she writes in "To Rethink Sprawl, Start With Offices."

"These workplaces embody a new form of segregation, where civic space connecting work to the shops, housing, recreation and transportation that cities used to provide is entirely absent," she adds. "Corporations have cut themselves off from participation in a larger public realm." Today, she notes, "this pastoral capitalism ... accounts for well over half the office space in the United States."

But that kind of land use won't thrive in an increasingly car-free America. "Those jurisdictions and businesses that first create livable, workable, post-peak-oil metropolitan regions are the ones that will win the future," Mozingo concludes

Leinberger's kicker is similar: "We have to stop throwing good money after bad. It is time to instead build what the market wants: mixed-income, walkable cities and suburbs that will support the knowledge economy, promote environmental sustainability and create jobs."

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