Monday, June 10, 2013

The driving boom is over!

The driving boom is over! Or so proclaims a recent report by Transportation for America and the OSPIRG Foundation (OSPERG, Spring 2013).

There a number of reasons for the trend of declining VMT, foremost amongst them is the travel patterns of late 20- to early 30- year olds, dubbed in the press as “The Millennials (Transit, 2013).” These Millennials have values that seem significantly different than the generations before them. Things like walkability scores and active transportation access are displacing car culture as the top priorities when it comes to travel choices. The statistics are hard to ignore. “Among people ages 16 to 34, VMT per capita declined some 23% between 2001 and 2009, while their transit passenger miles increased by an astounding 40%. Moreover, in 2011, fewer 16 to 24-year-olds even had a license to drive than any year since 1967 (Transit, 2013).”

But what does this shift mean for the world of (U.S.) transportation? For one, a sharp decline in revenue from national and state gas tax. This means fewer funds for road maintenance and new projects. But U.S. transportation policy has not caught up to the changing trends. Car-centric projects are still being green-lit at the cost of other areas. “Even though recent data suggests that per-capita increases in driving have ended, official forecasts of future vehicle travel assume the opposite. These forecasts are used to justify spending vast sums of money on new and expanded highways, while existing roads and bridges are neglected (Foley, 2013).” We can see this disconnect between funding and revenue close to home; the economic plan for local Columbia River Crossing project hinges on assumptions based on an ever-increasing amount of auto traffic (Maus, 2013).

Those who dismiss declining VMT trends as a mere passing “blip” or “fad,” insisting that behavior will eventually swing back, are starting to sound very much like the climate change deniers, holding on tightly to outdated beliefs. Change is hard, and for politicians and bureaucrats, striking out on a new path can feel too much like admitting defeat. I wish they could see it for what it could be: innovation. Of course, accepting an inevitable reality may seem like common sense to some. But to many of those at the table, deciding our policies, it can be a truly radical notion.

There are some who believe that this return to the dense, walkable urban core is simply generational and once “The Millennials” start having kids, they will all move back to the suburbs. One article asks “What will happen to today’s 20-year-olds as they enter their 30s, raise families, and consider moving to the suburbs?” “Will this group really push systemic change (as the baby boomers did) in how Americans live, work and relate to each other (sharing cars, for instance, as opposed to owning them)? Or is this moment – with its associated driving patterns – a hiccup in history? (Badger, 2013)?” What they fail to account for is the fact that we have seen a similar shift in national values and concepts of livability. The end of the 20th century saw the flight of critical numbers out of central cities to the suburbs. Aided by city, state and federal level programs, the 1970s – 1990s saw disinvestment from the urban core on a major scale and a definitive need for beefing up auto infrastructure. According to Robert Fishman we have been experiencing a reversal of this trend since the last decade, a wave of migration “…that will reurbanize precisely those inner-city districts that were previously depopulated (Fishman, 2005).”

It seems that the trend isn’t going to swing back any time soon. “The Millennials” are making their choice clear, and policy makers should pay attention. “This group is already the largest generation in the United States, and therefore, their choices will guide the nation’s future transportation infrastructure needs (Foley, 2013).”
The growing numbers of those who have already made the move away from car dependency are becoming more outspoken and more critical of those who are slow to catch up. The comments section of is full of calls for the need of a counter-narrative to the car-is-king status quo. But how to reach the unbelievers? Many think that numbers and facts aren’t the way to do it. That appealing to people’s emotional side is the way to go.

*Thanks to Gabe R. for proof reading, thoughts. 


Badger, E. (2013). Millennials Lead the Trend to Less Driving, But What Happens As They Get Older? Retrieved from The Atlantic:
Fishman, R. (2005). Longer View: The Fifth Migration. Journal of the American Planning Association, Volume 71, Issue 4.
Foley, M. (2013). Here’s Why the American Driving Boom Ended. Retrieved from Wall Street Cheat Sheet:
Maus, J. (2013, May 14th, 2013 at 11:32 am). Report: End of driving boom requires a new direction. Retrieved from
OSPERG, F. (Spring 2013). A NEW DIRECTION: Our Changing Relationship with Driving. Frontier Group.
Transit, H. (2013, 05/ 17). the driving boom is over. Retrieved from Human Transit:

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