Less Driving = Stop Building New Roads?

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A national research organization argues that automotive trends – vehicle miles traveled per capita, car ownership rates and drivers licenses – are in recession, and that plans to build new highways should be scrapped. Instead, researchers recommend repairing the roads we have, fill the potholes and support alternative means of transportation. Are they right?

The answer might be as mixed as the United States is diverse. Indeed, as a group younger people are driving less and opting to live in cities where they have car ownership alternatives, such as public transportation and biking, and where car share and ride share services enable them to drive only when necessary. Employers are responding by moving into cities to become preferred employers. But in many parts of the Sunbelt, where Baby Boomers are retiring – particular in metro areas largely developed after World War Two – the amount of car driving may actually be on the rise.

So to understand this dichotomy, Pothole.info took a look at statistically based reports and media analyses to get a broad, nuanced view. What we found was the following:

“Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and American’s Transportation Future” – Released in September 2014, this report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund (Inglis, Baxandall) posits that all indications are that auto driving is down but that government spending on new projects expensively ignores this fact. It calls out projects in Seattle (Alaskan Way Viaduct), Dallas (Trinity Parkway), Detroit (widening I-94), Chicago (Illiana Expressway) and Georgia (Effingham Parkway), among others, for wasteful spending (cumulatively, those projects will cost $13 billion if built). “The total number of miles Americans drive is lower than it was in 2005… per-capita driving has fallen by 7 percent in the last nine years,” according to the report’s executive summary, which says the 9,400 vehicle miles traveled per capita is short of the 11,300 VMT that were projected just a decade ago.

American Road & Transportation Builders Association – ARTBA argues for increasing the amount of roads in the U.S. for several reasons. While not addressing the matter of fewer miles driven per person, the trade association looks at the years 2000 through 2012, noting that while the U.S. population increased 11 percent in that time, only 4.6 percent of highway miles were added over the same period, and that of the 13,042 “center-line” miles added 63 percent were local roads, not interstates. ARTBA agrees that existing roads are riddled with potholes and other pavement deterioration, citing Federal Highway Administration findings that 20.5 percent of major highways are in poor or mediocre condition and in need of repairs or repaving. What should be noted is that the latter half of the time period examined came during and after the Great Recession, which PIRG and others say triggered a new way of thinking about all expenditures, car ownership included.

“Junior Isn’t Driving and Millennials Aren’t Buying” – In an article published by FoxBusiness.com (Money Tree column, 1/9/14), writer Kathryn Buschman Vasel drills down to the root of the problem in speaking with the chief economist for Edmunds.com. He says, “The financial crisis hit the younger generations the hardest and now a lot of these people don’t have the financial wherewithal to get credit to get a car. They don’t have jobs or an apartment, so right now, many of them don’t have the need for a car.” Vasel backs this up with numbers from Autodata, which show that between 2007 and 2011, cars purchased by people in the 18-34 age group fell by 30 percent. Multiple sources interviewed for the story said that college debt is making car ownership impossible or unlikely for many of them, and that among those who do buy they choose a vehicle based on environmental considerations over sportiness. Among teens, the numbers are also down for obtaining drivers licenses due to two factors: fewer jobs to go to and how social media enables them to “get together” without actually being in the same place.

“Millennials Drawn to Car-Sharing Services, But Eventually, They Buy”Automotive News, a publication that examines this from the standpoint of car sales, looks a little further down the road (so to speak) when it posted an article on the impact on car ownership of car share and ride share services ZipCar, Car2Go and Uber. An Austin, Texas Kia dealer says first time buyers today are more likely age 25 than 18 or 19 years as was previously the case. The car-sharing membership firms are growing at an annual rate of about 25 percent, with a projected total of 3.8 million members by 2020. Still, even that number will constitute only about one percent of the population. The article suggests that all this is building pent up demand for car ownership, predicting that as more Millennials marry and have children, they will need to upgrade to car ownership.

“Companies Say Goodbye to the ‘Burbs”The Wall Street Journal dissects the shift going on with many companies in many cities in a December 4, 2013 article, where formerly suburban corporate offices are relocating wholly or in part to urban centers. It seems to be more attractive to a freshly minted MBA, for example, when his or her workplace will be in a downtown loft or skyscraper. The story looks at Chicago, where Motorola Mobility (a Google subsidiary), United Airlines and Hillshire Brands Co. have all recently moved in from suburban locations. The research firm Reis Inc. notes that nationwide vacancy rates have been higher in the suburbs versus central business districts since 2010 – all of which indicates that urban dwellers are lucky to be closer to their work and be more likely to use public transportation. Older employees whose lives are firmly established in the suburbs are unhappy with these moves and often quit under relocation-downtown circumstances, while younger employees rave about creative influences of downtown amenities. The CEO of the Urban Land Institute, a think tank, says that this may be a long-term trend: “Given energy prices and traffic conditions, it’ll be a long time before we see another wave of suburbanization.”

“Millennial Moving to Markets with Jobs, Baby Boomers Downsizing to Lower-Cost Markets” – RealtyTrac, a real estate trade online publication, compares where young adults and their parents, aging Baby Boomers, are moving to. The greater DC metro area, mostly in Virginia, has had a rapid and significant influx of Millennials, followed by New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, Clarksville (TN), New York City, Portland (OR) and Nashville – each city reporting between 29 and 39 percent of their total populations made up of the Millennial demographic. In those markets, they put up with higher housing costs because there are more employment opportunities there. Boomers, on the other hand, are moving to where housing costs are lower and which are decidedly suburban. Those cities are (in order) Wilmington (NC), Phoenix, Punta Gorda (FL), Hilton Head (SC), Seaford (DE), New Orleans, Homosassa Springs (FL), Cape Coral-Fort Myers (FL), Prescott (AZ) and Orlando-Kissimmee (FL).

The PIRG report urges a change in transportation policies. Foremost of these are that projections for growth and driving be updated with data that more accurately reflects current trends. Next, allocate funding “away from highway expansion and toward repair of existing roads and investment in other transportation options.” Acknowledging that congestion on many of the nation’s roads and highways is a critical problem, PIRG encourages a reconsideration of road (congestion) pricing and technologies that could “help drivers avoid peak-time traffic.”

We have to agree that the existing roads, pothole-ridden as they are, lend themselves to smart economics if maintained on a timely basis. But other specific policy recommendations should probably be in response to where the kids are moving – which could differ quite a bit from the places they go to visit their parents.