Moderated by Tom Sabulis
New studies show that in recent years, the number of miles driven by Americans has begun to drop for the first time in more than a half-century. Some say the trend is due to the recession, which has put people out of work and taken commuters off the road. Others say a larger demographic shift is in play: Young people today are not as interested in the car culture of older generations. Both sides are represented in today’s columns.
Commenting is open.
By Jessica Estep
As a child, I was forced to leave every Braves game in the seventh inning and listen to Chipper Jones’ game-winning heroics on the radio in the car. “We just can’t get stuck in Atlanta traffic,” my mom would explain. No matter if we were playing the Mets and the score was tied. No matter if David Justice was next at bat. We had to go.
These days when I’m at Turner Field, I wouldn’t dream of leaving early, because I wouldn’t dream of driving to see the Braves. I hop on MARTA and take the free shuttle to and from the game. I stay into extra innings.
My suburban-raised generation grew up with the shared vision of cars as the Ultimate Freedom Machines. But it turns out (surprise!) that driving isn’t freeing; it’s expensive, dangerous, stressful and terrible for the environment.
Last month alone, I spent $891.57 on my sedan: an engine leak, a cracked windshield, a screw in my tire, a broken headlight, gas and insurance. This doesn’t include the dent a stranger put in my parked car.
And it doesn’t include the anxiety I feel every time I’m maneuvering a two-ton machine in one of the six lanes on I-85 and a summer storm crashes down so violently that none of us drivers can see the white lines on the highway, much less each other. My fingernails digging into the steering wheel, I wonder, Am I going to join the thousand or so people who die in motor vehicle accidents in Georgia each year? We’ve all seen the flashing traffic-fatality counter on I-85, a sign that ominously reminds us to “Drive Safely.”
But I’d rather not drive at all.
In fact, I’ve delicately formulated a balance of biking, taking MARTA, carpooling and walking to whittle my total drive time down to about 50 miles per week. (Not impressed? My commute to Lawrenceville is 25 miles each way.) I spend any moment I am behind the wheel plotting how to further decrease my driving time. My ultimate fantasy is to get rid of my car altogether, pending increased public transit services in Atlanta. (A pipedream? I hope not.)
Older people and suburbanites look at me funny when I profess my deep love for MARTA — and particularly for my bicycle. They tell me biking is dangerous and inconvenient. But cruising my bike through Piedmont Park to the Beltline is a heck of a lot safer way to get to the Grant Park Farmers Market than merging my car onto two separate 12-lane highways. And I would hardly call my bike’s free, market-front parking spot inconvenient.
Driving is what’s inconvenient. And I’ve purposely reoriented my life to be car-light. I choose to live in Midtown, where my fiancé and I happily split a 700 -square-foot apartment so that we can walk to the grocery store, the bank, a movie theater, a library, two museums and a plethora of restaurants and bars. “And the best part is that we live right across from MARTA!” we tell people excitedly. (He can also walk to work, lucky guy.)
And we’re not anomalous. Plenty of my friends have already trashed their cars or live similarly car-light lifestyles — relying on MARTA, their feet, their bikes and the occasional ZipCar to get around. Mallory takes the Atlantic Station shuttle to Midtown for her job. Jonathan takes MARTA to Lindbergh. Leslie walks. Chris rides his bike to Emory’s campus. Another Chris rides his bike five miles from Kirkwood to Midtown: “It’s such an easy ride down the BeltLine and then through Piedmont Park to 14th (Street).” Ah, yes, I know!
Sure, some drive. Many do, in fact. But for the most part, our generation doesn’t want to join in Atlanta’s congestion hell. We’d rather plan our escape.
And you’d better believe I’ll be jumping on my bicycle when the zombie apocalypse comes. I mean, can you imagine the traffic jam on 400?
Jessica Estep, 26, teaches English as a local college.
By Robert W. Poole Jr.
For the last several years, popular media have featured articles about “peak car”(usage) and the recent decline of vehicle miles of travel (VMT) in developed countries. The anti-auto PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) made a big splash in May with its report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future.”.
PIRG’s thesis is that the key to recent U.S. decreases in VMT and VMT per capita is changes in preferences and behavior among young people ages 16 to 24 — the so-called millennial generation. The story line is that millennials are not very interested in getting a driver’s license or living in the suburbs; they want to live downtown and walk, bike or use transit. PIRG then does a lot of number crunching to produce VMT projections through 2040 that are drastically lower than anyone else’s, and uses those results to argue for shifting a lot more transportation dollars from highways to transit, bikeways, etc.
In my column in the May issue of Public Works Financing, I questioned this thesis, drawing in part on analysis by commuting expert Alan Pisarski. He points out that the recession has hit young people the hardest, citing a Pew Center study in 2010 that found 37 percent of young respondents either out of work or underemployed. Healso cited figures from the National Highway Transportation Survey that annual miles driven per person differ dramatically by employment status. For those 16 to 24, employed males averaged 12,000 miles in 2009, compared with about 6,000 miles for unemployed males.
Pisarski also noted that in the last two decades, nearly all states have enacted “graduated licensing” schemes that restrict driving by those 16 to 18. Nevertheless, from 2001 to 2009, the fraction of those under 19 with drivers licenses was essentially flat.
In the May issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson assembled an array of data on millennials, showing that the number of people ages 15 to 34 living with their parents soared from 500,000 in 2008 to nearly 2 million in 2011. Fewer young people are getting married, having children and buying homes — which has led to what Thompson describes as “stagnation” in household formation since 2007. As the economy recovers, all those trends are likely to reverse.
As for the alleged shift of millennials and others from driving to transit, biking and walking, that’s hard to find in the data. In a recent presentation at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, researchers compare the reductions in driving to increases in use of alternative modes. They find that increased transit use account for only about 1 percent of the decrease in auto travel, with bicycle and walk trips appearing to account for only a few percent more. Other possible factors besides the recession include the growth of online shopping and a nearly 1 percentage point increase in the mode share of telecommuting.
As for the much-touted preference of millennials to live in the city center, the statistical evidence says otherwise. Demographer Wendell Cox reviewed the data in May in a piece for NewGeography.com. Comparing Census data for 2010 and 2000, Cox finds that people between 20 and 29 “were less inclined to live in more urban and walkable neighborhoods than their predecessors.” In 2000, 19 percent of those in this age group lived in the core municipalities of major metro areas, compared with 13 percent in 2010.
So what can we make of all this? Clearly, VMT per capita cannot go on rising indefinitely. But the just-so story about millennials losing interest in driving appears to be mostly an artifact of the recession’s severe impact on younger people, not a fundamental change in their choices of where to live or how to travel.
Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation.