As Americans Drive Less, What Does That Mean For Cities?

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A new report from the advocacy group U.S. PIRG has found that for the first time in six decades, Americans are actually driving less.

A number of factors have contributed to this, according to Micheline Maynard, editor of the journalism project, "Curbing Cars: Rethinking How We Get Around."

Since the recession, Americans have only recovered 40 percent of the wealth they lost, meaning people have been less likely to buy cars or to drive. In addition, Maynard said more people are moving into cities from the suburbs — where parking is more scarce and there has been record demand for public transit.

A lot of cities have decided that their land is simply too valuable to hand over to drivers at almost no cost.

Michael Manville

Shifting attitudes

The driving trend is more apparent in certain parts of the country than others.

"It would be hard to live in North Dakota on a farm and ride a bike sharing bike," Maynard said.

She cites California's Bay Area as a region that is particularly enthusiastic about public transportation and bike sharing.

In addition to big cities like San Francisco and New York, college towns and suburbs are also picking up on alternative methods of transportation.

Maynard says that on a cultural level, this represents a shift of Americans' attitudes toward the car.

"The automobile is a fundamental part of our freedom and our mobility," Maynard said. "But people who are looking at cars today — especially younger people — they don’t necessarily see that. ... Escape for our parents and grandparents is different than escape for 20, 25-year-olds today."

Cities built for driving

However, cities have been built with the automobile in mind.

"A lot of the story of transportation planning from almost 1950 onward has been to sort of remake cities in the image of the automobile,” Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at Cornell University, said. “There was a fear that if cities weren’t more friendly to cars, they would lose population to the suburbs. It has resulted in very dramatic changes in the built environment of even old cities.”

Manville cites city policies like parking mandates that subsidize the cost of driving a car. Zoning codes in most cities require a housing developer to build a certain ratio of parking spaces to housing units in their buildings. This costs developers as much as $50,000 per parking space. Manville says regulations like this have real social consequences.

"You’re not going to build housing that’s marketed toward lower-income people, you’re not going to build housing toward anyone who doesn’t drive," Manville said. "If you have zoning codes that force developers to provide housing that comes with parking spaces, what you are implicitly saying is that it is illegal to build housing explicitly for people who are too poor to own cars.”

Changes afoot

However, some cities are changing the way they value their land, Manville said.

“A lot of cities have decided that their land is simply too valuable to hand over to drivers at almost no cost,” he said. “It’s up to cities to take the lead and have these policies that say, 'We’re going to make it so that we no longer sort of subsidize driving.'”

His ideal city street takes a page from some streets in Copenhagen, Denmark, called woonerf.

These streets have little signage, and no demarcations, such as lanes. Instead, pedestrians, cars, bikes and other vehicles have to be attentive and make their own decisions about how to occupy and share space together.  While it sounds chaotic, Manville says that it's actually much safer.

"It's a way of forcing people to take into account their context, and be aware of everybody else around them," Manville said.


Read more

New York Times "Baby boomers, too, are aging out of the daily work force and need to commute less. If the decline continues, the U.S. Pirg report states, driving could remain below its 2007 peak through 2040, even though the population is expected to grow by 21 percent."

This segment aired on July 25, 2013.


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