Transportation

Yet Another Report Notices We're Past Peak Car

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 19, 2013

The latest 'peak car' story to come down the pipe, focused on Oregon, notes that driving in that state peaked in 2004 and has been in decline ever since. It introduces the concept of "driving light" - people who are not anti-car but want to own fewer cars, to drive less, and to have more transportation choice.

Oregon Department of Transportation data on passenger vehicle miles driven per person, per registered vehicle and per licensed driver show declines of 11 percent to 13 percent since 2004, according to The Oregonian's analysis.

At its peak, the average distance traveled per person in Oregon was 9,936 miles and the average distance per registered passenger vehicle was 11,290 miles. In 2008, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression caused those averages to plummet to 8,836 miles and 10,177, respectively.

By the end of 2012, even with the economy revving up, the per person miles traveled had dropped to 8,548, while the miles per registered vehicle ticked up slightly to 10,360 miles - likely a reflection of drivers squeezing more life out of aging rides and more people sharing cars, experts said.

Meanwhile, in the past 10 years, passenger vehicle ownership has increased by only 4 percent, even as Oregon's driving-age population jumped 14 percent, Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle and U.S. Census statistics show.

The declines are distributed unevenly, of course. Places with more walking, cycling and transit options have seen sharper declines, while places whose land use and street designs are more rigidly automobile-centric are still increasing.

And of course, the trend is sharpest among young people, of whom a number of recent studies have found that they're just not that into driving.

Although there isn't a comprehensive study showing how and why Oregonians may be driving less, "those national trends would apply to Oregon," said Kelly Clifton, a Portland State University professor of civil and environmental engineering specializing in travel behavior.

For instance, Clifton and her fellow PSU transportation researchers note that getting a driver's license is no longer the teenage rite of passage it used to be.

Since 2002, the number of 16- to 21-year-olds with licenses has slipped rapidly, from 250,434 to 214,800 statewide. Ten years ago, 85 percent of Oregonians in that age group were licensed to drive, The Oregonian found. Today, it's 71 percent.

This generational shift strongly suggests driving will continue to decline in the coming years and decades as the culture of driving-as-freedom declines and the culture of connection-as-freedom expands.

I've said it before and I'll probably have to say it again a bunch more times: policymakers who ignore these shifts and continue to project forward based on historical patterns will end up mis-allocating untold millions of dollars in scarce public infrastructure investments.

Between insisting on redeveloping Longwood Road as a five-lane thoroughfare and paying consultants to tell us we need more parking lots downtown, it's clear our city leaders have not yet gotten the message.

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Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2013 at 16:00:10

I'm always amazed how average I end up being. I think my family and I are way out there - like buying a house in in an old established neighbourhood, to getting rid of cable tv and land line telephone, to trying to get by with one car...then I find out we're actually the current trend.

I would love to only have one car - but for a family in Hamilton, that's not a viable option now - nor does it look like a viable option any time soon.

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