The announcement that the driving boom era is over should come as no surprise. This probably isn’t surprising especially for Millennials, who are attributed with the shifting trends of decreased car ownership and vehicle miles traveled. The scary truth is that it’s not over because cars that drive themselves will bedazzle us all. Based on the current evidence, it can’t be denied that our society is undergoing a shift in the way we get around, but all the research and reports currently out aren’t factoring the potential impact of something like a Google Car.
A recent report by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) announcing that the car boom era is over has been receiving a lot of attention recently, and rightly so. Their report, “A New Direction”, chronicles the rise and fall of driving in our society, predicts that driving won’t rise again, and makes a call to action to change the way we approach transportation at the federal level.
I agree with most everything the report says. A car boom era is over and a new car boom era is about to begin, and it’s so very important that we change the way we approach transportation planning otherwise we run the risk of the same issues we have now, pollution, congestion, and sprawl.
Let’s look at where we are now. Americans drove more miles every year between the end of World War II and 2004. Total miles driven have not risen since 2004 and per capita miles driven hasn’t risen since 1996 (PIRG). Public transportation use is also increasing as well. In 2012, Americans took 10.5 billion trips on public transportation, the 2nd highest annual ridership numbers since 1957 (APTA). This is all very great news, particularly to planners and environmentalists, because less car use means less congestion and pollution.
The reasons why people are making these changes is a bit more complicated though. Reasons like the increased cost of gas and car ownership can be considered the simplest explanation why we are seeing these changes. Gas prices above $3 a gallon can empty someone’s wallet real quick.
Some people say the changes are because of the recession. The recession is certainly the “low hanging fruit” for attributing the changes in travel behavior. Combined with the high cost of gasoline and car ownership it’s a very plausible explanation. People simply can’t afford to drive anymore because of the one, two punch to the bank account. But what happens when we get out of the recession and back to living in fat cat city like we did before in the 1990’s and early 2000’s? We could get that elusive “disposable income” that’s been sorely missed and decide that $3 or more a gallon is worth it and then it will be back to business as usual.
But you say, “people won’t go back to more driving because people are changing their habits now”. It’s true that people are changing their transportation habits. Zipcar asked over a 1,000 people what would have the greatest negative impact on their lives and younger people, the Millennial generation, are more likely to say giving up their smartphone would be worse than giving up their car. Our society, particularly the younger generation, are viewing car ownership as more hassle than its worth. Why sit in your car stuck in traffic when you could ride the bus and play or be productive on your smartphone or ride a bike and skip the congestion?
Now imagine having the benefits of being able to play on your smartphone in the comfort of a car driving itself to work. Driverless cars are already a reality and will be available to own or use through car-sharing in our lifetimes. California and Nevada have passed legislation to allow them on the roads and Google says they will have market ready setups available in five years Those of us who have the disposable income will likely opt for a driverless car over transit because it offers the best of two worlds: the accessibility provided by a car and the opportunity to play or be productive while on the move.
Many of the concerns over driverless cars are obstacles that can be overcome. Legal concerns like who’s at fault in accidents will be addressed and refined over time by legislative and insurance policies. Emissions are being addressed with the adoption of electric vehicles and other alternative fuel sources. Riding bikes will still be a viable option for cost-savings, healthier lifestyle, and congestion free mobility. But the crux of the matter is driverless car ownership will become an increasingly appealing asset and vehicle miles travelled won’t decrease because you won’t have to spend the time behind the wheel actually driving. PIRG's call to action in "A New Direction" is absolutely important not because we have a golden opportunity because the car boom era is over, but because the new car boom era hasn't started yet and we can influence it now before it becomes the same as before.