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May 2012

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Young Americans' waning interest in driving has implications for transportation policy, report says


By Julie Sneider, assistant editor

As Congress grapples with long-term legislation that will fund the nation’s transportation programs, lawmakers might want to consider a recent report that shows Americans are driving less, a trend primarily driven by young people who are seeking transportation alternatives such as trains and buses.

Americans’ love of driving had been increasing steadily from the end of World War II until early in the 21st century. But in 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles than in 2004, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund and the Frontier Group recent report, “Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy.”

Leading the trend away from driving are younger Americans, defined in the report as the 16-to-34-year-old age group. From 2001 to 2009, the average number of auto vehicle-miles traveled in that age demographic fell 23 percent, from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita. During that same time period, the average number of passenger miles (via train or bus) traveled by young people soared by 40 percent, the report states.

Also unlike their parents’ generation, younger Americans don’t seem to be in a hurry to pass their driver’s test. Citing the Federal Highway Administration, the report says that from 2000 to 2010, the percentage of 14-to-34 year olds without a driver’s license jumped from 21 percent to 26 percent.

Younger people are driving less for several reasons, including the higher cost of gasoline; college student-loan debt levels that make owning and maintaining a car cost-prohibitive; new, more restrictive driving and licensing laws; technology improvements that support alternative forms of transportation; and the growing popularity on the part of young people to live lifestyles that minimize their environmental impact, the report says.

Although some of the drop-off in miles traveled by car may be attributable to the 2007-2009 recession, the shift away from a steady growth in automobile driving is likely to continue even as the U.S. economy improves, the report’s authors conclude.

Consequently, lawmakers and policymakers should take such factors into consideration when determining where public resources are invested, the report recommends. Historically, U.S. transportation policy has been created under the assumption that driving will continue to rise, but a policy dominated by road building is “fundamentally out of step” with the country’s current needs as well as the preferences of a growing number of Americans, according to the report.

“Our elected officials need to make transportation decisions based on the real needs of Americans in the 21st century,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior transportation analyst for the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and a co-author of the report, in a prepared statement.

Meanwhile, the transit industry is adapting to its younger customer base in a number of ways, not the least of which is its embrace of social media tools, electronic applications and other forms of communications technology that appeal to younger generations of transit riders, says Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a national initiative formed in 2005 by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Regional Plan Association to address national infrastructure, economic development and environmental challenges.

For example, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) move to open its data to outside programmers who’ve developed creative apps for mobile phones to help New York City-area riders get the most out of MTA “is an indication of the kind of forward-thinking that will benefit the system in the future,” she says.

The trends highlighted in the U.S. PIRG Education Fund report reinforce the growing demand for transit use. They also support cities and regions being planned in ways that accommodate the demand for transit options, says Todorovich.

“Young people have demonstrated a desire to live in places where they’re not reliant on an automobile for every trip to get to their job, visit their friends or go to school,” she says. “That, combined with baby boomers downsizing out of their big houses [in the suburbs], will continue to fuel demand for places that are walkable and that have a range of housing types — from apartments to condos to larger houses. Those are the places that are best served by public transit.”

It remains to be seen whether the House-Senate conference committee currently negotiating a surface transportation bill will take into account demographic trends such as those highlighted in the U.S. PIRG report, says Todorovich.

Congress is “clearly out of touch” with U.S. transportation needs — which it demonstrated in part by rejecting further funding of the federal high-speed rail program, Todorovich says. Yet, she remains hopeful that members of Congress will start hearing from voters who support public investment in passenger rail and other forms of public transportation.

“I think there is a lot of frustration by the American people that politics are getting in the way of making smart policy decisions,” she says. “My hope is that these [demographic] trends continue to make that case, and that elected officials hear from their constituents that they want transportation options other than driving.”


Browse articles on trains Americans driving Congress U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund the Frontier Group transportation policy Phineas Baxandall Metropolitan Transportation Authority Petra Todorovich America 2050 baby boomers

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