If we truly seek a prosperous future, it lies in a real commitment to revitalized urban centres that set us on a path to economic sustainability and social inclusion.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 06, 2014
In April 2013, I wrote about a report by transportation analyst Doug Short on the US government's Traffic Volume Trends Report, finding that per-capita driving in the US peaked in June 2005 and had been in decline ever since. Notable was the fact that the peak happened two or three years before the Great Recession hit, and driving did not rebound with the economy.
It's taken me a few months to circle back, but Short published an updated analysis a year later that found the trend of declining vehicle miles driven continues. As of March 2014, vehicle miles driven per capita in the US has declined to the same rate it was in December 1994 - two decades ago.
Per Capita Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads by Americans 16+ Years in Age, 1971-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
Short uses the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statics' Civilian Noninstitutional Population age 16 and Over to accurately compare total distance driven to the population of driving-age Americans.
This is a big deal. The past decade is the first period in which a decline in miles driven has not been connected to a recession. Previous dips correlated closely with recessions (marked in grey on the chart), and driving bounced back once the recession was over.
The previous big dip in driving began in May 1979 with the second OPEC oil crisis and the recession that followed. Per-capita driving returned to the pre-recession level 61 months (just over five years) later, a period that spanned not one but two major recessions.
This time around, we are 105 months (almost nine years) past the last peak in per capita driving and the subsequent decline has not even flattened, let alone bounced back.
Short also calculates per-capita vehicle miles driven using the total population of Americans, on the argument that at least some driving is comprised of people who have licences driving for people who do not, for example children and seniors.
Per Capita Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads by All Americans (Image Credit: Doug Short)
The result is similar using this broader population baseline: distance driven peaks in June 2005, flattens until the recession, then declines steadily thereafter, right through the recession and post-recession recovery.
Even if you just consider the total vehicle miles driven without controlling for population, the absolute peak happens in 2007, declines during the recession and then flatlines for the next four years. Again, this is without taking into account the steadily increasing population of Americans (both driving-age and overall).
Total Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads, 1971-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
Some of this decline is attributable to gasoline prices. Following shifts in the price of oil, gas prices dramatically increased starting around 2000, peaked in mid-2008, plummeted by the end of that year as the economy crashed and then bounced back in 2010.
U.S. Vehicle Miles Driven and Gasoline Prices, 1990-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
Gas prices have remained high and volatile since then, reflecting the fact that the age of cheap, abundant, ever-growing oil supplies ended around the same time that vehicle miles driven peaked.
The long run-up in oil prices is surely a significant contributor to the decline in driving, though Short gives it rather short shrift. However, it seems clear that a persistent high oil price is only one component in a perfect storm of economic, demographic and cultural changes that inveigh against driving.
Demographically, the populations of most mature liberal democracies - including both the U.S. and Canada - are aging. The Baby Boom generation is transitioning into old age, and senior citizens will make up a progressively larger share of the total population over the next few decades.
An individual's annual driving tends to peak in the late 40s and decline steadily thereafter into old age. In addition, the percentage of people who drive at all begins to fall steadily in the 70s as health conditions, medications and cognitive declines make driving unsafe.
A new cognitive test administered to Ontario drivers age 80-plus will likely further reduce the number of seniors who are able to drive, especially as average life expectancy continues to rise.
Seniors on fixed incomes who must drive to get around find that transportation takes a bigger bite - around $8,000 a year to own and operate a car - out of their budgets.
Even worse, seniors who live in car-dependent neighbourhoods but can no longer drive have great difficulty aging in place. They are more socially isolated, have fewer contacts, make fewer appointments - including medical ones - and are less physically active.
The result is lower quality of life, higher morbidity and worse health outcomes.
On the other side of the driving cohort are Millennials, the generation of roughly 80 million American teens and young adults born between the early 1980s and late 1990s who will drive the economy over the next few decades.
Millennials tend to be comfortable with technology, highly networked, more pragmatic than ideological, and willing to move to a city that provides them with the quality of life they seek.
Millennials are the most educated demographic in history - particularly as many have stayed in school rather than try to find a job in the rough labour market that followed the Great Recession. They are also far more likely than previous generations to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses.
Put simply, Millennials do not want to have to rely on owning a car. They define "freedom" not as car ownership but rather as access to a variety of options for getting around. This is the first generation in a century that regards a car as an expensive burden rather than a rite of passage.
More than half of Millennials would consider moving to a different city if that city provides a better mix of transportation options. Similarly, Nearly half of Millennials who do own a car would consider getting rid of it if their city provided good alternatives.
We are in a remarkable moment in modern history in which both the wealthiest generation (Boomers) and the generation with the most life-long economic potential (Millennials) have a shared interest in moving into urban environments that provide diverse services in close proximity, as well as great transit and public spaces designed for active transportation.
As long as Hamilton continues to pin its hopes on yet another new highway as our economic salvation, we risk missing out on this demographic one-two punch and losing out on a generation of new businesses and net new job growth.
That is not even to mention the sheer fiscal unsustainability of continuing to build out low-density, car-dependent suburban developments that generate less property tax revenue than they cost to build and maintain, inexorably accumulating unfunded infrastructure debts.
Accommodating universal driving has always been a fool's errand for cities. Some people simply cannot drive - people with disabilities, people on low incomes, all children - and a city that expects everyone to drive will inherently fail to accommodate such people properly.
Even among people who can drive, a city designed around the expectation that most people will drive to most destinations is necessarily a place that flings destinations apart, squeezing out the choice to walk or cycle and starving public transit of resources.
Such a place has more air pollution - in Hamilton, more than half of our air pollution comes from tailpipes - and less physical activity. It has more obesity, more heart disease, more diabetes, more hospital visits and more premature deaths. It has more people mangled and killed in vehicle collisions.
Ironically, cities that spend the most money trying to accommodate driving also have the worst traffic congestion. Thanks to induced demand, simply building new lane capacity actually generates more and longer automobile trips, which fill up the new capacity and leave people stuck in traffic.
Over the longer term, adding lane capacity drives private investment into automobile-dependent land use that locks people into the very travel patterns that create traffic congestion.
The opportunity cost of all this money sunk into road infrastructure includes foregone opportunities to build transportation infrastructure - like light rail transit - that drives more healthy, compact and cost-effective land use and reduces time spent stuck in traffic.
If we seek a prosperous future, it lies in a real commitment to revitalized urban centres that generate new employment opportunities, reduce our per capita infrastructure costs, increase our per capita tax assessments, attract young people who demand a high quality of life, allow seniors to enjoy independence and social connectivity, and set us on a path to economic and social prosperity.
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