The Great Shift Away From Driving Isn’t Driven By Unemployment
One of the most common ripostes to the great shift away from driving is that because the decline in vehicle miles traveled has been taking place at the same time as the Great Recession and a weak recovery, it’s not really evidence of a lasting change in American transportation habits.
But evidence is mounting that in fact the shift isn’t about unemployment but about a genuine and permanent change in how we get around. USPIRG has published a new study, Moving Off the Road, that shows the decline in VMT began before the recession started, is continuing after the recession ended, and isn’t correlated at all to unemployment:
This study finds that declining rates of driving do not correspond with how badly states suffered economically in recent years. On the contrary:
• Among the 23 states in which driving miles per person declined faster than the national average, only six saw unemployment increase faster than the nation as a whole.
• Among the 10 states with the largest declines in driving per person, only two rank among the ten with largest increases in unemployment.
• Among the 23 states where driving declined faster than the national average, only 11 saw faster-than-average declines in the employed share of their working-age population.
• Among the 10 states with the greatest reductions in the employed share of population, only two were also among the ten states with the largest reductions of driving (Georgia and the District of Columbia).
The report also shows that the decline in driving isn’t being fueled by telecommuting and it doesn’t appear to be driven by urbanization either:
The more important population shifts are not between rural and non-rural areas but between suburbs and more densely populated cities.
In other words, these are changes taking place within the existing metropolis, and the locus of the change is in the suburbs. More people are leaving the suburbs for the city, and more of those who remain in the suburbs are finding other ways to get around their communities. Less rural land is being converted to exurbs than prior to 2005, but that rate of conversion has not resumed even with the end of the recession.
Americans young and old are participating in the shift. The Millennial preference for cities is well known. But Baby Boomers are moving to the city too as they retire, preferring to be close to amenities and active surroundings as they no longer are raising families or commuting to jobs in the suburban office parks.
The story appears to be the end of the great suburban boom, one that lasted for nearly 90 years. Starting in the 1920s the mass production of the automobile began fueling urban sprawl and suburbanization. The Depression cut off this nascent trend, but New Deal programs laid the groundwork for the big wave of suburbanization that took place in the years following World War II. Americans were taught this was the pinnacle of human civilization – Richard Nixon stood in a mockup of a suburban home in the famous Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 – and despite the energy challenges of the 1970s many Americans refused to let go of their suburban mindsets even as the economic logic began to fade. The 1980s and 1990s saw a last hurrah of the suburban model, but by the 2000s rising oil prices began to cut the legs out from under it.
The decline in VMT began around 2005, which is the year that the gas price rise began in earnest. Gas prices broke the $3/gallon barrier in California in the spring of 2006 and have never looked back. The housing bubble popped later that year as the rising cost of gas overstretched family budgets and began to set off a wave of foreclosures in the exurbs.
Gas prices remain well above $3/gal in California, hovering close to $4/gal since the 2008 spike receded. Gas prices are unlikely to ever recede below $3/gal again, at least not for anything more than a temporary blip. And that is what will generate continued demand for alternatives to driving, especially in the suburbs.
We often think of the suburbs as a place characterized by sprawl, by separation, even isolation. Those things are real, although my own memories of growing up in Orange County suburbia are full of community and connections rather than atomization. It seems to me that what really characterizes “the suburbs” in America, at least as we knew them from 1920 to 2010, is cheap oil and driving.
That is coming to an end. Not that people will stop driving, far from it. But American suburbs will become characterized by something else. California’s suburbs, especially those in the great Southern California plain, are very well positioned to show what that will look like.
Many Southern California suburbs began their lives as farming towns oriented around railroads. A trip on the Pacific Surfliner, or most Metrolink lines, or even the Bay Area’s Caltrain, will provide a fantastic tour of the visual evidence. It’s obvious in cities such as Santa Ana, Orange, Palo Alto, and Ventura. Even cities whose old towns are not centered on the main lines, like my hometown of Tustin, were connected by freight spurs and streetcars that did serve the main rail hubs. Starting in the 1920s these towns became reoriented around the automobile, a process put on pause by the Depression and World War II, and the 1950s finished the job.
But the basic layout is still there. Many of these suburbs can be connected to the major regional centers with passenger rail, with other forms of transit connecting the rail stations to suburban neighborhoods. Taking suburbs whose streets have been laid out to prioritize vehicles over pedestrians and cyclists isn’t easy, but every time I go back and visit OC I am amazed at how much more infrastructure there is for bikes and peds – and how many more people are using it.
The demand is there. Tea Party politicians on the right are trying to squelch it, partly in service to their oil company paymasters and partly in service to their voting base which refuses to accept that the driving-dependent suburb is now obsolete. But the great shift away from driving is going to continue even in spite of efforts to deny it.