Wishful Thinking

Have American cities stopped growing at the urban fringe? Some people think so based on a trend of one or two years during the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Antiplanner’s loyal ally, Wendell Cox, doesn’t think so.

Are Americans shifting in droves from from cars to public transit? Based on similar short-term evidence, Colorado PIRG and US PIRG think so. The Antiplanner thinks this is just wishful thinking on the part of those who don’t like suburbs or automobiles.

I respect the choices American make. But when vehicle miles of driving decline by 1.6 percent (which they did from 2006 through 2010) and transit passenger miles increase by 0.9 percent (which they did between 2006 and 2010; see page 11 and the service spreadsheet of the 2010 National Transit Database), it doesn’t mean drivers are switching to transit in large numbers. After all, transit carries only about 1 percent of the passenger miles of cars, so only about 1 percent of the decline in driving resulted in more transit ridership. Actually, not even that, because urban driving actually increased by 2.5 percent between 2006 and 2010.

The USPIRG report tries to claim that young people have idealistically decided not to drive and to take transit instead. This is a sample of 1, but when I was in my 20s I lived in high-density, inner-city neighborhoods and bicycled everywhere. Now I live in an exceedingly low-density neighborhood, but still bicycle a lot. But I wouldn’t consider that much of a trend. Instead of basing plans on short-term trends and wishful thinking, let’s wait and see.

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18 thoughts on “Wishful Thinking

  1. LazyReader

    That’s like saying what’s larger, a shrinking elephant or an expanding ant. A slight decline in automotive use can be accounted for many things, fewer distant vacations being taken, a slight increase in carpooling that reduces individual miles driven, more stay-cations, more online purchasing as opposed to shopping. Plenty of cars in my low density suburb (actually the density of my neighborhood is a little higher, with one court containing over 100 homes) but plenty of bikes, strewn across by children, also a surge in adults riding bikes.

  2. bennett

    “Have American cities stopped growing at the urban fringe?”

    No, but trends are changing slightly. Obviously it’s not black and white. Suburban growth doesn’t go to 0% and urban to 100%, but the balance is shifting in some regions.

    “Are Americans shifting in droves from from cars to public transit?”

    Again, no, not all at once and not all the time. That said, last time gas hit $4 many transit systems saw a spike in ridership for a few months and many of those systems were unprepared. This go-round most of those same systems have contingency plans to increase (bus) capacity as needed. Also, cities with transit systems that run on time and have great geographic coverage (i.e. Good systems) are seeing steady rises in ridership. Does that mean drivers are switching in droves to transit? No, it just means that more people are riding transit. The comparison to car travel isn’t really that relevant unless you want to get into ideological pissing matches with transit haters.

    “The USPIRG report tries to claim that young people have idealistically decided not to drive and to take transit instead.”

    Once again, I think this is too matter-of-fact. There is truth in this statement but not in an absolute sense. Many people in their 30’s and younger are making a concerted effort to bike and ride transit more, WHEN IT’S CONVENIENT, and are not giving up their cars but using them a little less. Transit is great for going downtown or to fairs/festivals on the weekend when parking is an issue. Commuting by bike is great when weather and temperature permits. It’s pleasant and fun. Sometimes the circumstance dictates the need for auto travel/commuting.

    My generation and those younger are no longer picking one mode over the other. Sometimes a slightly longer travel time by bus, train or bike is worth not having to drive. Some days you need to hop around town at a moments notice and you need your car.

  3. Southeasterner

    But what if the decline in auto use is directly related to the price elasticity of demand related to gasoline and gasoline prices continue to increase? What if the reason for the decline was more correlated to the increase in gas price than the decline/stagnation in GDP?

    If as you say private car use is still increasing in urban areas wouldn’t this further back this since urban areas have higher average incomes compared to rural areas?

    If a viable alternative to gasoline doesn’t exist at current prices why should we be confident that we can find an alternative at a price that encourages further growth in private car use vs. public transit?

    My guess is we may have hit a peak in private car use (in the US) unless a new vehicle/fuel technology can be found/introduced to reduce the costs related to driving.

    bennett Reply:

    “My guess is we may have hit a peak in private car use (in the US) unless a new vehicle/fuel technology can be found/introduced to reduce the costs related to driving.”

    While this statement is rife with technological determinism (absolving us of any responsibility in the impacts of auto use), this has been the answer of a many a antiplanner re: future auto use.

    The other answer is that environmentalists have been telling us that we are going to run out of gas for the last 40 years and it hasn’t happened yet…

    Southeasterner Reply:

    But we have run out of cheap easy to process light/sweet crude…so they are partially right. If we increase our dependence on heavy/sour crude from Canadian tar sands or CO shale oil we have committed ourselves to expensive gasoline and hence the availability of cheap gasoline may be a thing of the past.

    The question is at what gasoline price will people make significant changes to their travel behavior and choices related to where they live/how they commute? If $4+ per gallon gasoline is here to stay, living in the suburbs or exurbs may not be all that attractive.

    Dan Reply:

    The question is at what gasoline price will people make significant changes to their travel behavior and choices related to where they live/how they commute? If $4+ per gallon gasoline is here to stay, living in the suburbs or exurbs may not be all that attractive.

    Yes. Complicating this issue is the fact that jobs are becoming more temporary. Chasing temporary jobs around the country means you aren’t buying a house. If you have one, do you rent, sell…what…to live somewhere closer to a temporary job?

    Surely gas is too cheap. Those days are coming to an end. Whether people will move is another story I don’t think we know the answer to. But far-flung suburbs will no longer be a ‘drive til you qualify’ option. Thus the McSuburbs becoming less MerkinDreamy.

    DS

    bennett Reply:

    Dan & Southeasterner,

    I think the first likely step is that telecommuting will become much more popular. My experience is that in the professional world 9-5 doesn’t really matter any more and that has become all about production. Many companies don’t care how and when you produce as long as you produce.

    Also, I think we’ll likely see a lot of jobs venture out to the burbs and change the McHousefarm complexion a bit. I don’t anticipate any “massive” shift to higher densities in the near future (probably in the distant future).

    Dan Reply:

    bennett:

    I’m not 100% convinced telecommuting will be all the rage. When I lived in NorCal, I had several friends in the Bay Area that telecommuted, and they preferred the office. There is also transitioning that goes on from one place to the other. We are social animals. I can see 1-2x/week no problem for those who can do it.

    The key in my view is what to do about all the other trips. And what happens in energy descent with the use of oil: is it for transport, material, or fertilizer/ag? How we manage that will guide how societies change as well. If we eschew transporting food, we’ll need those big burb houses for food growing.

    DS

    bennett Reply:

    “I can see 1-2x/week no problem for those who can do it.”

    Totally agree. As with my other comments on this post, it’s not absolute. Offices will still be needed, but you won’t have to do it every day from 9-5. And this is just the short term (IMHO). Long term we’re looking at paradigm shifts, let alone geographical ones.

    “The key in my view is what to do about all the other trips… we’ll need those big burb houses for food growing.”

    BINGO! The sooner “we” realize this, the better (see: paradigm shifts).

    the highwayman Reply:

    Telecommuting is one thing, though if you have to do actual physical work, telecommuting isn’t going to help.

  4. Andrew

    Anti-Planner:

    The APTA books shows the DIrty-Smelly-Bus has peaked in ridership, probably due to the cuts in service during the recession and its accompanying fuel price spike since buses are so dependent on diesel. However, overall transit ridership is shown up 4%, and Passenger miles are up 6%, all thanks to great strength in rail.

    Meanwhile, you may wish to believe that personal vehicle miles are only down less than 2%, but the reality is probably much more. Gasoline consumption has cratered and is down 10% in the same timeframe. I highly suspect that gasoline supplied by refineries is a far better measure of vehicle usage than the nebulous DOT vehicle mile traveled estimates. And the notion that a few hundred thousand hybrids in a fleet of hundreds of millions is skewing the statistics is patently ridiculous.

  5. Sandy Teal

    A PIRG report? Weren’t there any other Econ/Soc/Poly Sci 101 term papers submitted?

    I love PIRG and their energy, but PIRG reports are a step above a high school debate club. That doesn’t make them wrong, but 100 cites to NY Times and Newsweek articles doesn’t make it an academic article (unless of course it is in the social “sciences”).

    Dan Reply:

    Weren’t there any other Econ/Soc/Poly Sci 101 term papers submitted?

    Feel free to submit your ideologically pure report showing true data, complete with MyFacts and ideologically correct analysis.

    And thanks for not upending our apple cart by replying with anything other than the predictable, standard tic.

    DS

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    You are right, Dan. There was a rather civil discussion going on, and it was rude of me to add a flippant comment on top of a good one.

    Dan Reply:

    And feel free to show the ideologically pure data that show the PIRG analyses are wrong.

    DS

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    I tried to be contrite. And since I have committed to be contrite, I can’t believe that there can be any more ideologically pure information than from a “Public Interest Research Group”. We all should believe everything they say.

  6. bennett

    “Telecommuting is one thing, though if you have to do actual physical work, telecommuting isn’t going to help.”

    Is that kind of work still done in America? ;)

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