Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Getting Out Of Gear

This is another in a series of blog posts excerpted from Reconnecting America's report "Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America"

Trends underway in the housing and jobs market portend a need for more transportation choices to help people get where they need to go as well as to enhance this country’s economic competitiveness. Market trends confirm the shift in demand away from single-use, single-family neighborhoods, corporate campuses and shopping centers connected by highways, and toward compact mixed-use neighborhoods where streets are not the sole province of fast-moving cars but are shared with pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users. Providing more transportation choices is critical to supporting this 21st century lifestyle and it seems to be what both younger and older generations want.

For the younger generation, traffic congestion, $5 a gallon gas prices, and the popularity of smartphones and social media have made driving far less appealing than it was to their parents. According to the U.S. department of Transportation, half of all 16-year-olds obtained a driver’s license in 1978 while only 30 percent of 16-year-olds got a license in 2008. A 2012 University of Michigan study found the number of 18-year-olds with licenses declined from 80 percent in 1983 to 65 percent in 2008.

From 2001 to 2009 the average annual number of miles driven by young people dropped 23 percent, according to a 2012 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research group and the Frontier Foundation. The study authors note that gas prices, new driver licensing laws, technology that supports alternative transportation, and changes in values and preferences are all triggering this decline — and suggest the change may be long-lasting.

“Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people — and Americans overall — throw those assumptions into doubt,” write the report’s authors. They note that the recession has probably played a role, but that the trend occurred even among young people who were employed and/or doing well financially. They conclude, “The time has come for transportation policy to reflect the needs and desires of today’s Americans — not the worn-out conventional wisdom from days gone by.”

Another study, by Gartner Research in 2011, found that when a group of 18-to-24-year-olds was asked to choose between having Internet access or a car, nearly half said they would choose Internet access. The researchers concluded that smartphones and computers offer the same ability to connect socially with friends as a car — but require less time and money.

“The iPhone is the Ford Mustang of today,” says study author Thilo Koslowski. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, everyone was keen on getting their driver’s license because it was liberating. Now freedom lies in accessing data online, and people are meeting up on social media sites. Mobile devices, gadgets and the Internet are the must-have lifestyle products that convey status — instead of the car.”

This shift in the preferences of younger Americans may also have to do with demographics. The majority of Americans under the age of 18 are non-white, and many are second- or third-generation Latino and Asian Americans. University of Southern California professor Manuel Pastor told the audience at the 2011 Rail~Volution conference that America’s rapidly changing ethnic makeup is upending conventional models of how we live, work, move and play. And the data shows that minority Americans — younger Latinos in particular — are more comfortable taking transit, and have a greater interest in living in urban areas.

More Blog Posts In This Series