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.
Millennials tend to want to live in places with better public transit, better bike lane networks and more walkable streets.
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.
By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted August 06, 2014 at 18:21:01
I guess I'm a millenial (born in the early 80s).
I'd gladly trade my car in for public transit, if: - I could easily get from home to work in the same time frame as my current drive; - I could easily get things like groceries, small purchases, etc., home without feeling like I'm going to drop everything (not to mention convenient stops to get on and off) - It was clean, safe, and efficient - It is reasonably priced - I can get from my home on the mountain to Ancaster, Dundas, Stoney Creek, Burlington or other nearby cities easily
When that happens, I'll listen. Till then, I'll continue to drive.
I also have to ask - the price of gas fell after the OPEC crisis in the late 70s. Gas prices haven't in the past few years - was just thumbing through some old receipts and we haven't been under a buck a litre in years.
I found this interesting graph, showing actual prices of gas since 1920 to today, as well as adjusted for inflation. There's other factors than just "people don't want to drive".
Taking it from 2007 to today, is this: http://www.gasbuddy.com/gb_retail_price_... Would love to overlay the following things to see where we go:
I think it might show some different results. But we get it, you don't want us driving and all hopping on LRT to get where we need to go.
Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2014-08-06 18:22:38
By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted August 06, 2014 at 19:24:54
I'd written a longish comment, but realized that recommending 'Straphanger' by Canadian author Taras Grescoe made more sense. The book provides some nice illumination of some of the points that Ryan has raised in this piece.
By AP (registered) | Posted August 06, 2014 at 19:57:09 in reply to Comment 103769
I don't think anyone is suggesting that a decline in driving means any one person will never drive anywhere; instead, it reflects the idea that of a person's daily get-around, more trips are being taken via non-car modes than before. I can personally attest to this: I prefer to walk or bike, and have set my life up where most trips can be made in these modes - but I still drive certain places or for certain tasks on a regular basis. A one car family plus a CarShare membership is working well. But, yes, we would do well to keep the challenges you highlighted in mind as we work to improve our infrastructure over time.
By son of toronto (anonymous) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 00:59:40 in reply to Comment 103771
Why this page want to screw up the good thing in Hamilton. Traffic is a good thing in Hamilton. Look at Toronto, subways, buses and streetcars are all over crowded. Congestion happens even on the subways, buses and streetcars. Traveling in Toronto is so stressful, expansive and take forever to get where you want to go. In past 5 years, every single weekend subways has been closed for maintenance. I have been living in downtown Hamilton only for 4 months, but love this city. So relax, hope they don't build a lots of condominiums then desperate for money to build subways like Toronto.
By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 09:30:22 in reply to Comment 103769
That's the goal of the city's BLAST plan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BLAST_netwo... which includes LRT lines connecting the areas you mention, combined with all-day GO rail and improved buses. I hope you have written to council strongly supporting this plan.
The other point is that the urban form changes in response to the transportation network: a city well-served by frequent high quality transit clusters services, employment and entertainment so that you don't have to drive half way across the city to go to a restaurant, buy groceries or hardware.
Of course, some trips (buying bulky goods, going to the countryside) always make more sense to drive. The point is that the modal share between walking, cycling, transit and driving will shift so most people drive less. Now, like you, most Hamiltonians rely on their car for the vast majority of trips (more than Toronto, for example).
Don't forget that Hamilton has even been chronically under-investing in its bus network for the past 25 years. Massive cuts were made in the late 80s early 90s and we have never recovered the service levels of the 80s, despite the growth in population. Imagine if we had closed roads and drastically reduced maintenance 25 years ago, and still had fewer lanes than in the 1980s but had built the BLAST network and had all-day GO service ... do you think people would still prefer driving?
Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-08-07 09:41:59
By Jim Street (anonymous) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 10:55:47
Straphanger is a great book. Follow the author on Twitter - he is always highlighting amazing things happening around the world.
By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 10:58:54 in reply to Comment 103778
Traveling in Toronto is so stressful, expansive and take forever to get where you want to go. In past 5 years, every single weekend subways has been closed for maintenance.
And yet millions of people do it every day in Toronto, but in Hamilton far fewer.
We can talk about lots of different reasons why Toronto has congestion but the #1 reason is that there are lots more people in Toronto who want to get around than there are in Hamilton. If Toronto congestion were such a detriment, people would be leaving the city in droves - but instead, its one of the fastest-growing cities in N.A. Apparently the congestion is worth it.
So relax, hope they don't build a lots of condominiums then desperate for money to build subways like Toronto.
In other words, you hope that Hamilton continues to under-perform economically and that people continue to not really want to buy condos in Hamilton and that it continues to fail to meet its infrastructure maintenance budgets for the sake of... easy driving? Makes no sense to me.
By RobF (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 13:18:37 in reply to Comment 103781
Ryan, I see your point in the article, and don't really have any qualms with the notion that we've seen "peaking driving" or that slimming down our road-space dedicated to cars is a good idea for the reasons stated. I'm more puzzled by your logic vis-a-vis concentrated poverty. Depressed ground rent is what allows people with limited means to live near the one-way thoroughfares. Improving the situation, which as you say is hurting them, and you most likely "improve" them out of the neighbourhood. That is what the evidence reported in the vast literature on gentrification says. So are we making these changes to help them?
By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 13:26:47
I'd love to see specific stats for the petrol-state known as Canada.
By RobF (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 16:52:33 in reply to Comment 103793
You're missing my point. All of what you've said is nice, but it doesn't change that you've made your argument for changing one-way thoroughfares about social and economic change ... Hamilton needs to join the creative city bandwagon. In a certain sense, I agree with the underlying need for certain changes and i certainly don't wish to keep Hamilton "crappy" so that housing remains affordable in it. It is a question of who benefits, how much, and by what mechanisms. You can bracket out housing affordability and say that has little to do with the question at hand, or at least for the moment, and that there are other tools to address it. To an extent I agree. Fixing our urban realm, land use policies, and so forth doesn't preclude us from addressing poverty and housing need. Yet, so much of your argument rests on the need to change the social class make-up of the lower city. At least that's how it reads to me. You can make the argument that everyone benefits, but that's basically a redux of new urbanist Andres Duany's essay "Three Cheers for Gentrification" (a trickle-down argument for urban revitalization par-excellence). You'll have to forgive me if that makes me uneasy.
By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 17:52:06 in reply to Comment 103795
I think the broader point here is that we should tackle issues of poverty by using smart policy to alleviate it. That means making living more affordable, stimulating economic activity to create jobs, building robust transit to reduce the cost of transportation and using good housing policy to ensure that rent remains affordable despite urban intensification.
To suggest that we don't improve corridors like Main/King for reasons of rent control is to suggest that we keep an area of the city depressed and less attractive to live in so that those with less money can afford those areas. This approach doesn't address the real issues of poverty because those who are forced to live in such areas still have to deal with the negative side effects: increased pollution, fewer options for jobs, dangerous car traffic nearby, exposure to crime and vandalism, fewer opportunities, less access to safe cycling routes, etc... A real approach to tackling poverty would be to implement policies that ensure no resident cannot afford to live in a place that is safe, accessible and is designed for their flourishing. Keeping the Main / King corridors depressed does nothing to improve the situation of low income residents who live there. That's why we are talking about social and economic changes - how can we talk about reducing poverty without talking about changing peoples socio-economic status?
By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 18:34:22 in reply to Comment 103793
"What does seem to life people out of poverty is gainful employment..."
As a very wise friend of mine says, "Poverty is not a 'social' issue. It's an 'economic development' issue."
By jason (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 22:46:43 in reply to Comment 103795
changing the social class is a different issue. Treating all social classes equally should be on our minds here. It's appalling that someone should be turned down a job because they don't own a car, or have a 90-minute, multiple bus ride trip to work where it would only be 15 minutes by car.
How are they supposed to improve their condition and earn a better living when half their time is spent trying to get around a city that is actively hostile their mobility. This is one reason I'm so glad Cannon is our first protected cycle track. 50% of the folks who live in neighbourhoods along much of it's route don't own a car. This isn't some yuppie novelty ride. It's a huge transportation link and quality of life improvement in the area that needs it most.
The former mayor of Bogota campaigned on the worlds largest BRT system, and hundreds of km of separated bike-ways as a human right issue. Said folks relying on those modes deserve as good an opportunity to live their lives as those with cars.
Tough to argue.
By RobF (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 23:38:27 in reply to Comment 103799
To suggest that we don't improve corridors like Main/King for reasons of rent control is to suggest that we keep an area of the city depressed and less attractive to live in so that those with less money can afford those areas. This approach doesn't address the real issues of poverty because those who are forced to live in such areas still have to deal with the negative side effects: increased pollution, fewer options for jobs, dangerous car traffic nearby, exposure to crime and vandalism, fewer opportunities, less access to safe cycling routes, etc
Clearly, this isn't my point, and i said as much. My point was alone the changes will lead to displacement (and i don't hold out much promise for "smart policy" in this regard ... other places haven't managed to get around the problem, indeed it is often the implied objective of "revitalization" when it becomes official policy). There's no free lunch. This is not meant as an attack on Ryan. Policy choices produce winners and losers ... we should be able to acknowledge that and discuss it.
By RobF (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 01:26:55 in reply to Comment 103804
What's tough to argue? I'm not against improving transit, adding bike lanes, slimming down our one-way expressways, etc. The experience in many other places is that less well off residents are displaced by "revitalization" initiatives. In Toronto, it seems that a large portion of the working poor has been pushed into the inner suburbs, where all the problems you describe are intensely present. Are you arguing that displacement doesn't happen or isn't a concern?
I'm interested in a inclusive and socially just city. Without considering how market forces impact the outcomes of what we advocate for that will be impossible to move toward. That was my broader point. Part of Ryan's initial response started by addressing the displacement problem, then moved on to muddying whether it actually is a problem. I suppose that is fair. We don't know how things will unfold in the lower city ...
By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 10:41:19
Another point that tends to get forgotten in the gentrification discussion is that in most cases the buildings we're talking about have been empty above the ground floor for decades. This was true for many of the buildings on James and along King St in the Gore.
These empty buildings were not providing accommodation to anyone and the resulting decay lowered property values to the extent that even partly occupied buildings were not maintained and became dangerous for those few people living there.
As Ryan points out, no one should be forced by economic circumstance to live in dangerous (mostly because of traffic) unpleasant neighbourhoods with few job opportunities and services.
The most successful strategy to help successful desirable cities remain inclusive is to insist on a proportion of geared to income and social housing, either publicly or privately built and managed (e.g. 20% as in France . And, of course, to have high quality social service and education opportunities.
By RobF (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 14:25:18 in reply to Comment 103810
Well, I had a lengthy reply written, but I managed to lose it before posting it (the keyboard on my laptop has button for moving backward or forward on the web next to the cursor).
Probably, better i didn't send it. I think we're on the same side. Our differences more nuanced than a comment board back-and-forth allows. For example, I share a certain dislike for simplistic renderings of gentrification. The process is complicated and the causes and outcomes variegated. It is not an everywhere, all the time, same process, and gentrifiers themselves occupy a range of social class positions, if you look at it in those terms. I think what the literature is clear about is that security of tenure impacts whether you benefit ... there is a big difference between a renter that is evicted when a house is converted from rental to owner-occupation, and a homeowner who can choose to stay or sell. Security of tenure doesn't have to relate solely to ownership, but in practice in most cities it does, and speculators have been know to use creative stratagems for clearing out existing tenants in order to renovate or otherwise move their properties upmarket. The process is also not instant, it unfolds over time, as stage models of gentrification outline. I'll have to read the article you referenced carefully and see where it fits in the literature.
I really don't have the time to properly respond to the rest of your argument, but i will say there are no essential ways that cities have operated for 10,000 years. There are certain attributes or characteristics that make cities a distinctive form of human settlement, and axioms that seem to explain how they work (your essential urban economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association, and extension). But how they play out in terms of everyday life, form, and function has been quite varied across time and space. It is simplistic to point to them absent any reference to property regimes, institutional forms, social structure, culture norms, etc. We live under capitalism, so our cities and urban regions operate and are shaped by a different logic than cities of other historical periods (there are profound differences in how space is organized and valued under different political-economic systems).
Comment edited by RobF on 2014-08-08 14:25:42
By no. (anonymous) | Posted August 09, 2014 at 21:58:27 in reply to Comment 103811
"no one should be forced by economic circumstance to live in dangerous (mostly because of traffic) unpleasant neighbourhoods with few job opportunities and services."
By H1 (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2014 at 12:11:38 in reply to Comment 103785
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