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Report: End of driving boom requires a new direction

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on May 14th, 2013 at 11:32 am

Cover of report.

A report released today by Transportation for America and the OSPIRG Foundation calls on government agencies to "re-assess transportation policies" in light of continued statistical evidence that Americans are driving less.

"The slowdown in driving is likely to continue," reads A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, "Baby Boomers are moving out of the phase in their life when they do the most commuting, while driving-averse Millennials [people born between 1983 and 2000] move into that phase. These demographic changes will likely keep driving down for decades."

For years now, some transportation watchers have pointed to a decrease in the number of miles driven. While some see this as a major trend that requires a paradigm shift in our approach to transportation projects and policies, others see it as merely a statistical blip that will return to normal levels once the economy rebounds or young people get over the fad. However, as the number of miles driven in the U.S. heads down for the eighth straight year, this trend is becoming more difficult to ignore. Major cultural factors have permanently shifted and vehicle miles traveled has continued to decline even as GDP per capita goes up.

Here's more from the report:

"The average American currently drives no more miles than at the end of President Clinton’s first term... The Millennial generation is leading the change in transportation trends. 16 to 34-year-olds drove a whopping 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001— the greatest decline in driving of any age group."

Here's a chart from the report's executive summary showing different scenarios of future travel growth:

Despite these trends, major highway projects are still being planned and funded based on assumptions based on an ever-increasing amount of auto traffic. We've seen this phenomenon play out in a major way by Columbia River Crossing supporters. They say future traffic will cripple Interstate 5 unless billions are spent to increase capacity. They also base toll revenue to pay for the project on assumptions of major increases in auto use well into the future. However, the stats paint a much different picture, as detailed in the excellent, Dude, Where are My Cars? series published by Sightline. And, as the report points out, even the federal government assumes a return to a steady increase in driving with official forecasts that are based on an increase of 44% to 67% in miles driven by 2040.

When I interviewed Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett last year, he hinted that the driving decline it might simply be a phenomenon driven by trend-prone young people. Here's how Garrett replied when I asked if he thinks driving levels might go back up:

"Well it could. Is it just a quick hit? Or is it truly a trend? ... If it's a trend that will demand a different calculus as we come to the table. The issue is, how long? Does that trend sustain as they get older? Maybe. I mean, there are generational issues, there's no question about it. I know my daughter is happy with her bus pass, but as she gets a little older will that shift?"

Based on this detailed report, it indeed seems like a trend that must be met with a "different calculus" from ODOT and other agencies.

4America has clear motivations with their report. They've lobbied congress for years to stop investing in new highways and widening projects and instead put money into rebuilding existing roads and making them more accessible for walking and biking. This change in driving trends, says the report, will lead to toll roads being "less financially viable," a reduction in traffic congestion, and "Many highway expansion projects will start to look like wasteful boondoggles," while modes of transport that are increase in use — like bicycling and public transit — will be a smarter investment.

As Oregon readies for a major transportation funding package in 2015, the data and trends detailed in this report could play a large role in shaping the arguments for a new approach.

Learn more and download the report at OSPIRGFoundation.org.

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  • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Very timely. Very little strikes me as more pertinent than wrestling not only with the decline in driving we can already observe, but with additional and much more rapid declines brought on by external factors--constraints--that, I believe, are barely discernable in the modal statistics yet.
    Climate change and the notion of unburnable carbon (that we must leave the remaining fossil fuels in the ground and never burn them) are going to have enormous implications for how we move around.

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  • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    Here's another, slightly more detailed, version of that graph that I like even better: http://tinyurl.com/future-of-VMT

    It is from this article:
    http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2013/03/what-does-peak-vmt-mean-for-twin-cities.html

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  • Chris I May 14, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    How many years do we have to see continuing decline in per-capita VMT before we can start calling the detractors liars? I feel like we've been talking about this for the past few years, and they keep using the same rebuttals.

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    • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      follow the money. :-)
      The Koch brothers don't stand to get rich off people walking. And GM and Exxon don't either. Those who just spent $30,000 on a new car aren't likely to want to hear that their investment wasn't wise either.

      We need a counter-narrative, and this is a contender.

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      • was carless May 14, 2013 at 7:02 pm

        Statistics don't make a very effective narrative, if they make one at all.

        The most effective marketing is one that is emotional. And has a catchy message that people want to follow. Boring people with wonkery is not the way to do it!

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  • KJ May 14, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I saw a comment or note in an article elsewhere about this release, that "when millenails start having kids they will move to the burbs where the schools are better and drive" or something to that effect. As if millenials *will* drive they just haven't gotten there yet.. just wait!
    But aren't mIllenials already having kids? (what's the cut off 30?) Aren't people still flocking to the urban cores of cities and walkable towns?
    It feels like some folks out there just can't parse that we're having a fundamental shift in how people live their lives.

    I think Portland is still a forerunner in having a boom in carfree families who are staying in the city to raise them.. but that we are the vangard for such. I expect to see this happening more and more.

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    • Chris I May 14, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      I am a millenial (without kids for a few more years), but I bought a house within the boundaries of Laurelhurst K-8, and I already own a Big Dummy. I definitely do not plan on buying a minivan or moving to Beaverton when the kids do eventually happen. This perspective is hard to comprehend for people that are dependent on their cars. They think we're all crazy.

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      • Kristen May 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm

        Besides that, the burbs are starting to do a bang-up job creating livable communities independent of a major city nearby. For instance, closing the gaps in the sidewalk and bike lane network, trying to entice more companies to the burbs so people will live and work in the burbs, making it easier to use active transportation to get to destinations people want to get to within their communities, connecting communities with off-street paths, revitalizing Main Street/downtown core....

        So people will be able to live and work in their suburb, and recreate, and shop, etc without having to go down to Portland.

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        • wsbob May 14, 2013 at 5:48 pm

          "...So people will be able to live and work in their suburb, and recreate, and shop, etc without having to go down to Portland." Kristen

          That's the future...hopefully...and may be at least a good part of the reason VMT's are dropping. Slowly but steadily, "...closing the gaps in the sidewalk and bike lane network..." seems to be happening, but a little quicker would be welcome. It doesn't happen easily where people don't recognize that bike support infrastructure is essential to having people ride for more than occasional recreation.

          Just this weekend, an opportunity arose for me to ask Beaverton's Mayor Denny Doyle whether he had some idea about when the Hall Blvd bike lane from Canyon Rd north to Cedar Hills Blvd might be made continuous (it ends at the light rail tracks, leaving a quarter mile to be traveled in the main traffic lane.). Upbeat, affable guy, but his response, though not word for word here, was essentially: 'People tell me they don't even like riding on Hall Blvd. You know what I do when I'm on a bike and come to a street like Hall Blvd? Ride the sidewalk!'. Seriously...that's what he said to me as I stood astride my bike, talking with him.

          Beaverton: please step up the timeline for making bike lanes continuous along heavily traveled thoroughfares between key parts of the city's downtown, so if someone wants to bike to the store with their kids, they don't have to ride up on the sidewalk because the bike lane has ended a short distance from their destination. If we as a good community, truly are serious about confronting the problem of excessive driving, creating bike lanes that are viable travel infrastructure is essential.

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          • longgone May 14, 2013 at 9:34 pm

            You are a Beaverton resident who wishes to keep me off my bike in Forest Park? Hmmm. Interesting.

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            • wsbob May 14, 2013 at 11:17 pm

              Don't be trying to hijack this discussion with jibes relating to a different subject. On topic, I've answered yours and other people's comments in response to stories, in a civil manner. I don't think it's too much to be asking the same from you.

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            • Chris I May 15, 2013 at 7:30 am

              As a fellow "true" Portlander, I'm going to have to call you out for being a huge snob. Forest Park belongs to everyone in the region, not just us.

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              • longgone May 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm

                Chris...
                I have to take it at face value that you are in fact a "true" P-town resident, as the inter-webbies are full of impostors.
                And since you are calling me names,(which is much less civil) than my pointing out that "wsbob" who lives in BVrtown, while using this forum along with the Oregonian to further his cause concerning Forest Park, all the while accusing others of a lack of civility when countering his opinion, is ironic.
                My feelings are not hurt.
                And since you both took my bait, instead of ignoring it, here we go....

                As a Portland resident there is very little (of interest to me) that I believe I could influence through social media to change the way people live in an environment such as Bvrtown.
                Much like cops working a beat in NoPo, but living in Vancouver,this is a severe disconnect for me, politically.

                As to me being a "snob", in your eyes,( if that is true) I am a very lower middle class snob, trapped in a capitalistic caste system, the same politically jilted game that has allowed the suburban white flight to flourish.

                I grew up in a Rockwell-ian township of provincial style, and historic significance.

                If it were not for the berg I knew as a child, much of the architectural history of Portland would not even exist.
                This quite little town where three trails began westward,(and was home to the only person on the planet to authorize the use of atomic weapons) was at one time, much like how I imagine Bvrtown to be 60 years ago.

                You see the roads, pastures,creeks and natural lakes around my rural home over time, gave way to the strip malls and mini highways to Walmart.
                I am a living product of this sea change. This economic and social nightmare of housing experiments, and the politics to implement white flight were forge in my home county.
                They have been studied and featured in text books by minds far greater than mine.
                Am I a snob for living through the civil rights era, and the urban decay that ensued, as people who feared for the state of their neighborhoods, left the city to destroy the peach tree groves,spinach fields,melon patches, and farmland around where I grew up?
                Am I a snob for being sickened by people choosing selfish unsustainable lifestyles in the name of personal convenience, when a light rail initiatives are seen as an abeyance to their lucid contentment?
                Maybe.
                I grew up in suburbia, or rather it grew up around me.
                I hate it.
                I feel that I have a right to my view of its horrible side effects.
                It empowers me to hate it.
                I will always hate it.

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                • El Biciclero May 16, 2013 at 9:15 am

                  "...left the city to destroy the peach tree groves,spinach fields,melon patches, and farmland around where I grew up?"

                  Wait--what was down by the river in 1804? Those three trails that headed westward from your hometown--guess where they ended up?

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    • was carless May 14, 2013 at 7:09 pm

      This. I refuse to live in the 'burbs.

      The only problem is that there literally isn't enough housing units in central cities to house everyone. So what we are seeing is that those that can afford to live in the city are doing so, and those that can't, are getting stuck in the burbs.

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      • longgone May 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm

        Dharavi, Asia's second largest slum(if Karachi's Orangi Town is counted as a single slum[249] is located in central Mumbai and houses between 800,000 to one million people,[250] in 2.39 square kilometres, making it one of the most densely populated areas on Earth [251] with a population density of at least 334,728 persons per square kilometre.

        Amazing how in other country's ,the rich make LOTS of people fit into such small places.
        Oh, our first world issues, they are taxing. Maybe someday we all will have to live alot more densely, against our will.
        I do not see much willingness from those with yards, driveways and cars, spending 2 hours plus a day driving, calling for real change based on concern for the planet or society, or even themselves.

        Does anyone truly think suburban American lifestyles are going to develop into these cute self sustaining utopias? Really?
        I do NOT see that in our future.
        Wilcrest and Westheimer Houston Texas, with light rail, coffee shops, bike lanes, diverse montesori schools, sidewalk gardens ? ..Sure.

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        • wsbob May 14, 2013 at 11:46 pm

          Living in the city isn't all that some people crack it up to be. It's nice to be living close to the countryside, as some suburbs allow. Variety appeals to people. Many people will not be willing to reconcile having to live in high density housing, with the opportunity to live in the city...and so on.

          Suburb planning is gradually evolving from old models that don't well suit changing travel needs. Suburbs can improve and be made better yet, moving towards being more self-sustaining, but people do have to think about what those improvements should be, and clearly get their thoughts through to people in local government...if there is to be any change from the same old car-centric planning, where the roads built always seem to devote way more than the lion's share of capacity to motor vehicle travel ability.

          Another thing Mayor Doyle said to me related to the bike lane question I asked, is that for him to move forward towards making improvements such as making thoroughfare adjoining bike lanes continuous, he must be hearing...loud and clear...from the city's citizens, that this is something they really feel a need for. Not just 'would like', but 'really need'.

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  • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Buried in this report (p.17)->
    "Washington is in even worse shape. After years of denial, the state recently slashed long-term revenue forecasts by billions of dollars. But since the state back-loaded interest payments on many of its highway bonds, its debt obligations will rise even if fuel tax receipts dip. Within just a few years, more than 70 percent of the state’s gas tax receipts will go to pay off debts on projects that have already been completed—leaving precious little gas tax revenue for maintenance of existing roads, let alone new construction." (emphasis mine)

    So much for blaming fuel economy improvements on the shortfall in gas tax receipts, or widening gap between receipts and maintenance costs. Ha.

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    • Chris I May 14, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      And where are they going to find the $500 million they need to raise for the CRC?

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      • was carless May 14, 2013 at 7:13 pm

        Well, they can't. So thats a moot point! muhahaha

        There is a possibility that Vancouver could increase its sales tax by ~1.5%, but its doubtful they would, and even then, doubtful it would raise enough money.

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    • Al from PA May 14, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      That's what will really end the fervor for new projects--they simply will become economically unfeasible. Rational arguments about the decline of the percentage of young people driving, while convincing to most of us, will carry little weight in the face of pressures from the highway lobby, the car industry, and big oil. But the fact that fewer people are driving will have much more of an impact. And have you seen the price of Tesla stock lately? An EV pays exactly no tax for road construction. The writing is on the wall.

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  • Chris Sanderson May 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    If gas prices continue to increase, and wages continue to remain the same, I think driving levels will decline. It seems to me that the number of miles driven is closely linked to economic prosperity.

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  • Nate Young May 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Once we actually pass a carbon tax and gas prices rise another couple of dollars, there will be even less incentive for millennials to join their dinosaur predecessors behind the wheel.

    In fact, all indicators suggest that this will indeed be a lasting trend:
    - gas prices will only continue to rise, eventually beyond the threshold of sensibility for many users
    - technology will keep making it easier to not drive as much
    - the era of the car as status symbol is already over for younger generations and I don't see that changing
    - the continuing migration back to urban cores, even for families, makes car-free life doable, as seen in Portland

    I was disappointed with Gov Kitz on Saturday for saying we needed to do everything possible to make the paradigm shift happen, yet not acknowledge his wrongheaded support for the BuRP that would enable the least efficient form of transport for both people and goods. I guess that event was all about loving compassion or something...

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  • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    I love the photo of the woman in the car they chose to put on the cover. She is clearly thrilled with her mode choice :-)

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    • longgone May 14, 2013 at 9:35 pm

      Her eyes are closed a bit as she enjoys a "private moment" while at an idle.

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    • longgone May 14, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Oh, and it appears that the fellow on the bike in the photos above is getting a flat on his rear tire.

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  • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Reading further into the report I am struck by how certain conservative assumptions sneak in under the guise of being cautious, of wanting to appear reasonable:

    "Nor does any scenario portray a future in which per-capita driving continues to fall for any age cohort after 2025."

    You'd think someone might have told them that in 12 short years private transport by internal combustion engine just might not be viable anymore. Lots of folks (World Bank, International Energy Agency to name just two) have started making noises to the effect that global use of fossil fuels will have to have gone into unprecedented decline starting in 2015 if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change. No one to my knowledge has bothered to translate this into the realm of private transport, but it doesn't seem that difficult.

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  • Bill Lindeke May 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I love Bike Portland!

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  • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Here you go (from last week's SF Bay Guardian):

    We can switch from cars to bikes, now. Or we can leave our kids a climate-change disaster
    http://www.sfbg.com/2013/05/08/zero-sum-future

    "Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University, lays out that case in a new book. He argues, persuasively, that the era of easy "automobility" — a time when people could just assume the ease and convenience of owning and using a private car as a primary means of transportation — has come to an end.

    Henderson isn't suggesting that all private vehicles go away; there are places where cars and trucks will remain the only way to move people and supplies around. But in the urban and suburban areas where most Americans live, the automobile as the default option simply has to end.

    'In 10 years, there will be less automobility,' he told me in a recent interview. 'It's a simple limit to resources.'

    And the sooner San Francisco starts preparing for that, the better off the city and its residents are going to be."

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  • GlowBoy May 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    A few years ago it looks like supply constraints were going to force higher gas prices on us for a long time to come, strongly incentivizing people to drive less.

    But the energy industry has responded to high prices the past few years with massive record exploration, discovery and development of new petroleum sources, both in North America (Canadian tar sands, North Dakota Bakken shale). Along with all the natural gas produced by fracking back east, we are headed into a huge energy glut.

    We may still be able to direct ourselves towards a lower-driving future, but it won't be the market forcing us to do it after all. it's going to have to be a willful effort. Do we have the political will to do it? Not until we start seeing far worse climate effects than we've had so far, I'm afraid.

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    • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 9:15 pm

      Not so fast.
      "In 2005, we reached 73 million barrels per day. Then, to increase production beyond that, the world had to double spending on oil production. In 2012, we’re now spending $600 billion. The price of oil has tripled. And yet, for all that additional expenditure, we’ve only raised production 3 percent to 75 million barrels per day [since 2005]."

      "Mature OPEC fields are now declining at 5 to 6 percent per year, and non-OPEC fields are declining at 8 to 9 percent per year. Unconventional oil can’t compensate for that decline rate for very long."

      "And we’re replacing it with tight oil wells in the U.S. that decline 40 percent in the first year, where the production cost is over $70 per barrel. Or deepwater wells, which deplete at 20 percent per year. Or tar sands, which is expensive. Anticipated production growth for tar sands has consistently failed to meet expectations, year after year after year. Ten years ago, tar sands production today was expected to be twice what it actually is.
      These are just low-quality oil resources, and we’re relying on them to compensate for the decline in cheap, high-quality stuff."

      from Chris Nelder in the Washington Post -
      here: http://tinyurl.com/peak-oil-isn-t-dead

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    • 9watts May 14, 2013 at 9:29 pm
  • longgone May 14, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    Anyone have any interesting numbers on new car sales to see that would correlate with this trend? The economy is supposed to be so down for so long,yet car commercials and auto indusr\try stories permeate the media. I have not purchased a new car since 1989.
    Perhaps the crunch is just making people look at the way they live and spend money.

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  • Joe Adamski May 15, 2013 at 7:27 am

    The increasing bite transportation costs take from the family budget will do more to encourage less driving and choices regarding where you live and shop,recreate,etc. My guess is that a big part of the return to the city as well as the decline in miles driven is economic factors, although there have been cultural shifts also. Chicken and egg stuff.

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  • Paul May 15, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Our cities will need to go through some pretty drastic changes before automobile trips significantly decline, even Portland. And since the majority of the population lies in the suburbs...well you can imagine the changes that need to happen.

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  • Peter W May 15, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    The "different calculus", if applied to the CRC and the CDM Smith study, would probably find that tolls blow traffic back to roughly 1970's levels and the smartest investment might simply be fixing potholes while adding bike lanes, sidwalks, and bus service.

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