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Getting There was Half the Fun

July 29, 2013 – If you live in a city in the United States, chances are less likely you own a car than they used to be.  Public transportation has become an acceptable alternative for many, and a foregone conclusion for the educated young.  College graduates wait as long as possible to get their driver’s license, and they often don’t own cars.  The further outside the city you go, the less true this becomes.  As the distances increase to get to work, shop for food, and visit the doctor, car ownership becomes more of a necessity, especially where public transportation is not an alternative.
There are a number of reasons for the decline in car ownership, perhaps the most obvious being the recession.  The costs of buying, insuring, and maintaining  a car have become financially prohibitive.  One less obvious reason, at least to a baby boomer like me, is the Internet.  Younger folks find interactions on the web a satisfactory substitution for person-to-person socializing.  Shopping and entertainment can also be had on the web.  No car required.  City life makes cars unnecessary; either work and shopping are close-by, or buses are available to take you where you want to go.  Finally, younger people are keenly aware of what cars do to the environment, and they want no part of it.  Good on them!

Michael Sivak, research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, says he believes the decline in vehicle use and ownership is likely to be permanent.  In a recent paper titled “Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?,” Sivak notes that vehicles per person, per driver, and per household all peaked in 2006, before the recession began.  Vehicle miles traveled per person have dropped for eight years in a row.  They are now about 7.5 percent below the 2004 peak.  These patterns, Sivak believes, have the makings of a long-term trend.
What about driver’s licenses?  In 2010, 69.5 percent of 19-year-olds had one.  That’s a six percent decline from 2008, and almost an 18 percent decline from 1983.  In fact, smaller declines have occurred in all other age groups, except for people over 70, and those between 25 and 29, according to the Federal Highway Administration.  How is that possible?  The increase in public transportation ridership throughout the entire nation could well have something to do with it.

Amtrak is setting records for ridership.  This year will be its 10th record-setting year during the last 11.  The overall mass transit picture looks very much the same: buses, trains, subways and trolleys carried 10.56 billion riders in 2012.  That’s the second highest total since 1957, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).  APTA says that high gas prices and traffic congestion are “driving” people off the roads and onto mass transit.  There’s just one downside: public transportation is funded largely by gasoline taxes.  As a result of declining car ownership, those revenues are also declining.  For the first time ever, the Federal Highway Trust was augmented by the general fund in 2008.  The condition of road and bridges is not likely to improve, and that may mean even more people looking for “the road less traveled.”
Scooter, anybody?

With thanks to The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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