As Millennials Shun Cars, Boston Rethinks Its Transportation System

BOSTON — A new report about Americans and their cars says the driving boom is over. It calculates that the average number of miles driven in the United States has been declining annually for the past several years and will keep dropping.

Advocates of alternative transportation say that means that as Massachusetts and other states make decisions about roads versus more bike- and pedestrian-friendly projects, they shouldn’t “build projects for tomorrow based on assumptions from yesterday.”

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about Tuesday’s MASSPIRG report (PDF) with the executive director of the nonprofit group WalkBoston, Wendy Landman, who explained what’s fueling the shift away from driving.

The Hubway bike share program launched in Boston in 2011. (AP File)

The Hubway bike share program launched in Boston in 2011. (AP File)

Wendy Landman: One of [the reasons], of course, is cost. The cost of driving has been steadily rising over the years, and now AAA estimates it costs a little bit over $9,000 a year to own and drive a car based on about 15,000 miles of annual driving, so that’s a big-ticket item for many, many households. So that’s, of course, one of the pieces.

Another piece is the shift in the way that both baby boomers and millennials are thinking about how they want to lead their lives. Millennials are actually wanting to drive less, and I think one of the really, really interesting pieces of information in the report is that the percentage of 16- to 24-years-olds in the U.S. who have driver’s licenses has been steadily dropping.

Sacha Pfeiffer: And why is that?

Well, there’s no more romance of the open road. As a baby boomer myself, when I was learning to drive, the idea of driving out in the country and even driving around town and not spending a lot of time sitting in traffic was actually something of a reality. As Americans started driving more and more over the years, there’s no more open road in the United States. Almost everyone who’s driving is driving places that are pretty darn congested.

I was just commenting to someone this morning that I often find driving unpleasant because it’s just constant red lights, the stop-and-go.

Right. Exactly. And I think millennials — that’s all they’ve ever known. So that idea that a car gives you freedom, that’s actually not true. What gives you freedom is actually walking down the street, taking a bus, taking a subway, getting someplace without paying a lot of money to park when you get there, without having to pay for that car. So a lot of millennials are choosing not only not to own cars and drive cars, but also to live in places where they can get around on foot and by bicycle and by transit.

So if this is the way things are heading, how do you think we need to be thinking differently about designing our city and our state?

Well, we have to pay a lot more attention to walking and bicycle ride and transit, which is something where there is enormous public support for. That doesn’t mean never using a car, but it means having a choice to not use a car some of the time or, in some cases, much of the time. You can choose to walk, you can choose to ride a bike, you can choose to take transit, take a cab, use a Zipcar, or maybe use your own car.

Certainly in Boston and Cambridge there’s been a huge push for bike lanes, and there’s the Hubway bike share program, but overall how would you assess how the Boston area and the state are doing in terms of transportation other than driving options?

We actually have a system that works better for walking and biking than many other parts of the country. Cambridge has the highest walk-to-work mode share in the country and Boston has one of the highest. We also have high transit shares, meaning public transportation, and the bicycle share is also growing. And all of those are giving people choices of ways to get around other than driving in their own car.

Are there any pending local projects in the works that you consider bike-friendly or walk-friendly that you really hope come to fruition?

In Jamaica Plain, the Casey Overpass is going to come down — it’s actually falling apart — but it’s going to be replaced not by a big new overpass but by an at-grade street system.

And that’s actually quite controversial because people are afraid of what it means to put all that traffic on the lower level.

It is controversial but we think it’s going to be a very good change. Likewise, Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown is going to come back as a city street; the highway underpass is going to come up to grade as a surface street and, again, we think what that’s going to do for Sullivan Square and for Charlestown is terrific.

Likewise, the Longfellow Bridge, when the reconstruction is done, there’s going to be a lot more space for bicycles and pedestrians — not as much space as in our dreams [that] WalkBoston would have liked to see, but a lot more than is there now.

You know, in particular with the push for more biking, with that has come a lot of frustration, tension between drivers and bicyclists, and a number of fatalities of bicyclists in the Boston area. How do you think we’re doing on the share-the-road front between bikes and cars?

We have to think carefully about when we look at the statistics because you can’t just look at the numbers; you have to look at the rate. So if we have many, many more people on bicycles, we’re going to also see some more bike accidents than we used to see.

Basically, the best way to make bicycles and pedestrians safer is to have more bicyclists and more pedestrians.

Because they get used to one another, is the theory?

Right, they get used to one another. So this is definitely a time of transition here in the Boston area, and one that I think is going to take some years to work out.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    lower energy prices or electric self driving cars will get our per capita miles back up within 5 years. just wait until they unveil the icar, all the hipsters will have to have it

  • jkr

    I’m a little surprised that “reducing one’s carbon footprint,” or words to that effect, isn’t one of the reasons given for reduced use of individual cars. Certainly for my family and many of my friends, that reason is right up there with reduced cost. (We’re not millenials–late Boomers to mid-GenX-ers.)

    Also, though it’s probably minor by comparison, I’m wondering about MP3 players and tablets and e-books and smartphones–all of which both make long rides on public transit much more pleasant, and driving much more dangerous–as a factor influencing people to ride rather than drive.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    The way to make bicyclists safer is to teach them to wear the proper safety gear and follow the rules of the road.

    • YerNeighbor

      Since you write “them,” you must be an expert on this. When is the last time you actually got on a bicycle and rode in a city? Cyclists are extremely aware of their surroundings, far more than most people seem to understand.

      • TomK_in_Boston

        Then why aren’t they “extremely aware” of red lights or one-way signs, or this thing called the “sidewalk”?

        • http://twitter.com/keithcsmith Keith C. Smith

          Are you suggesting that cyclists should ride on the sideWALK or not, not sure what you are saying there.

        • Justin

          It’s illegal to ride on a sidewalk.

          • http://twitter.com/keithcsmith Keith C. Smith

            I don’t think a bike should be on the sidewalk, however it is only illegal under certain circumstances apparently.
            I just discovered this myself recently after years of believing it to illegal.

          • Dorian Keibler

            it’s only illegal to ride on the sidewalk in business districts.

      • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

        I did not know I would need to provide my resume to comment on this article. Sadly, I have not been able to ride a bike since my last cancer surgery. Prior to that I took several bike tour vacations. During that time I also managed food and SAG vehicles for the Vernon 2 Vernon century ride, traveling from Vernon VT to Vernon CT. I also worked on the Hartford Ct Parks ride. Did the 5 Borough bike more times that I remember.

        So how about you YerNeighbor, what’s your bike resume?

  • TomK_in_Boston

    How about tensions between cyclists and pedestrians? I am sick of cyclists speeding through red lights while pedestrians are crossing. A bike can seriously injure a pedestrian, especially a senior or a child. Boston cyclists are arrogant, angry, self-righteous and far, far worse than the notorious Boston divers.

    Part of the problem is that there is no law enforcement for cyclists. BPD, please, please start ticketing these above-the-law cyclists with real tickets, not just warnings.

    • Justin

      How about tensions between drivers and pedestrians? I am sick of drivers speeding through red lights while pedestrians are crossing. A car can seriously injure a pedestrian, especially a senior or a child. Boston drivers are arrogant, angry, self-righteous and far, far worse than the notorious Boston cyclists.

      Part of the problem is that there is no law enforcement for drivers. BPD, please, please start ticketing these above-the-law drivers with real tickets, not just warnings.

      • TomK_in_Boston

        Cute, except drivers do stop and cyclists don’t. Thanks for illustrating the typical cyclist attitude, it helps make my point.

        • http://twitter.com/keithcsmith Keith C. Smith

          I have been a cyclist for over 30 years, I yield to pedestrians and stop at red lights and stop signs. I feel I actually follow the rules of the road better than 90% of the drivers on the road. Am I the typical cyclist? Probably not, but I do hope to inspire other cyclist to follow my example.

          Justin didn’t do himself any favors by just rewording your post, but your statement that drivers do stop is not entirely accurate. I can think of a dozen times in the last year when I was crossing in a crosswalk with a walk signal and some idiot tries to take a right hand turn right into me.

          • TomK_in_Boston

            Keith, thanks for the reply. Unfortunately, I think you are atypical.

            My statements of what drivers and cyclists do can only make sense as statistics. IMO drivers stop 99% of the time or more, not counting when a light has just turned and I’d guess the figure for cyclists is 50%. I don’t really know those numbers but I do know it’s a lot higher for drivers. I could shoot video of cyclists speeding through intersections against reds all day. I am really sick of dodging them.

            I agree about the right turns – it’s crazy to have walk signs while the drivers have a green for a right turn with just a stupid “yield to pedestrians” sign.

            BTW I commuted by bike for many years in Boston until 2 accidents convinced me that taking the T was the better part of valor. Now I’m an occasional recreational cyclist. I know this issue from all sides.

          • Dorian Keibler

            according to a recent report issued by the city of Boston (just this week) – cyclists running red lights are actually atypical. the intersection they studied, 4% of cyclists ran reds while 1.5% of motorists ran reds. 4% is definitely too high, but I’m sure of that number, most were when the intersection was clear.

          • TomK_in_Boston

            LOL, that 4% is so far from my experience that I’d say the survey had major flaws. Maybe non-representative intersections, or maybe the monitoring was visible. Who knows. Sorry, I don’t believe it.

        • Justin

          Drivers stop? Says someone who doesn’t have to yield to a one ton vehicle trying to make the light at least half a dozen times a day.

          Sure, some idiot cyclists run lights and yes, they could potentially injure themselves or pedestrians, but they are a maneuverable 200lbs. Cars weigh at least ten times that and aren’t exactly the most nimble of creatures.

          The point is drivers see cyclists as nuisances who “take up the road” (nevermind how much worse the commute would be if we all drove.) But cyclists see drivers as potential injury, dismemberment and death.

          • TomK_in_Boston

            I would say the point is that cyclists ignore the law far more than drivers do. From the endless repetition of “a car can hurt a bike but a bike can’t hurt a car” (pedestrians? what pedestrians?), I’d speculate that is one reason for that sense of entitlement.

            I don’t have any irrational prejudice, I was a cyclist commuter for years. I’m posting this stuff because of cyclist BEHAVIOR, primarily, I’m sick of dodging them while I’m crossing with a walk sign, getting on or off a bus, or on the sidewalk.

            Do you stop at reds?

          • Justin

            You’re totally right that there are a number of cyclists that have a sense of entitlement, and I hate those guys, too. But to that point, a cyclist running a red (while dumb and uncalled for) does not equal a car doing the same in term of consequence (typically the cyclist puts themselves in danger while cars put others.) Both sides are definitely guilty (as well as pedestrians who think crossing on green is an okay thing to do.)

            I absolutely stop at reds and stand at stop signs and often give a word to cyclists who don’t do the same. Mostly because it gives drivers the impression that we’re a bunch of entitled douches when in reality, the VAST majority of cyclists (as do cars) know the rules and follow them.

          • TomK_in_Boston

            Justin, thanks.

            I haven’t done a statistical study of this, obviously. But for example, consider crossing Cambridge st at Joy st in Boston. There is senior housing in the area and Beacon Hill nursery, so lots of seniors and mommies are crossing. Believe me, I could shoot video all day of bikes not even slowing down for that red with pedestrians in the intersection, while I doubt I could find one car running the red. I mean, yes, drivers don’t stop the instant the light turns and drivers stuck in the intersection will move as they get unstuck, but I’m talking about ignoring a red that has already been on for a while.

          • Dorian Keibler

            the recent report from the city of Boston states that the rate of cyclists running red lights (at one of the more egregious intersections) is around 4% (hardly an epidemic) while for motorists at the same intersection it’s about 1.5% – so you’re technically correct in terms of rates – however, the total number of cyclists is still well below the total number of motorists. Maybe the intersection needs to be designed better?

  • Clay Harper

    The Casey Overpass removal is “controversial” because a small number in the community continue to disrupt the ongoing design process by attempting to roll-back the decision 14 months ago to not replace the bridge. “All that traffic on the lower level” was measured to be 24,000 cars in June 2010 when the structure still carried four lanes of traffic. Currently the overpass has been restricted to one lane in each direction, and is so pock-marked with pot holes that it’s usage is way down.

    The old elevated Orange line, the massive granite viaduct of the Boston and Providence Railroad and the E-line trolley were all supplanted by the Southwest Corridor project and bridging them is no longer necessary. The footprint of the Overpass piers, abutments and ramps is all prime real estate for rationalizing the flow of traffic on the ground and making things safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike while enhancing the quality of life for neighbors.

    • http://twitter.com/kehutchinson Kate Hutchinson

      What’s particularly good about the Casey project is that it considers all modes in a holistic matter. I walk, bike, and drive through that area on a daily basis. As a biker, it’s hard to see around the bridge supports, and the current lanes are cramped. As a pedestrian, I hate going through that intersection, I’m always worried about getting hit. As a driver, I’m always worried someone will be frustrated waiting for a light, dart out, and I won’t see them until it’s too late. In the past few years, I’ve really liked seeing better ped and bike access in the Boston area, because that’s my preferred way to get around. I’m not a Millennial, but I only got a driver’s license last year (at 32) because I got a new job that doesn’t have public transit access.

      • Clay Harper

        I’m local too, and agree that it’s not just about the cars – the new Head House providing access to the T-station on the North side of New Washington (and eliminating the mid-block pedestrian crossing) is a key feature of the street level design. Here’s a great photo showing some of the things the Casey was built to cross. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/hhh.ma1288.photos.076022p/

  • Cabanator

    I give a lot of credit to those who choose to commute via bike, but I can’t say I would do it myself. The idea of a bike-friendly city is great, but Boston was not designed to accommodate cars and bikes. As a result, bike lanes are often haphazardly thrown onto the shoulder of roads, cut off unexpectedly when a right-turn lane appears, and frequently right next to a row of parked cars. Oh, and then the MBTA bus comes by and pulls right into the bike lane as well. It’s a scary situation, and no wonder that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians often find themselves fighting for their share of the road.

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