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The cult of the car may be waning, according a new report that says Americans are driving less than in the past. After 60 years of steady growth in the number of “vehicle miles traveled,” the figures turned a corner. Now we’re driving fewer miles each year, not more. We’ll explore how the economy, the Internet and the rise of the Millennials are fueling the decline of driving.
- Sonari Glinton Business Reporter, NPR
- Phineas Baxandall Senior Analyst and Director of Transportation Programs at the United States Public Interest Research Group
- Ron Kirby Director of Transportation Planning, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG)
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. For 60 years in America, the car was king. Each year, Americans drove more miles than they had the year before. Then, in the middle of the last decade, the seemingly permanent growth of driving came to a crashing halt. In the last several years, miles logged behind the wheel have been in steady decline even as the population has continued to grow.
MR. MARC FISHERWho's driving less? Millennial seemed to be hitting the brakes with fewer 16-year-olds rushing to get a driver's license and more 20-somethings living in cities, taking public transit or walking to work. In the District, fully 39 percent of residents now have no car. Now, others say that this shift is purely a reflection of the economy. And when jobs are down, people drive less because fewer people are commuting to work. The advent of Internet commerce and socializing has also diminished car travel.
MR. MARC FISHEROnline shopping and social networking have reduced the need to hop in the car to buy clothes or check in with friends. For the rest of this hour, we'll be exploring the place of the car in American culture and the reasons driving is on decline, both nationally and here in the Washington area.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd joining me in studio is Ron Kirby. He's the director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. And on the line from Boston, Phineas Baxandall is senior analyst and director of transportation programs at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. We're also joined by ISDN line from San Francisco by Sonari Glinton, a business reporter for NPR. And, Phineas Baxandall, for the last eight years, our driving mileage has been dropping, marking the end of this driving boom of six decades duration. What do these numbers tell us?
MR. PHINEAS BAXANDALLWell, the first thing is they're just, you know, they tell us something is going on. You know, 60 years of pretty much uninterrupted driving increases is -- was quite a pattern. You know, it was like predicting that the sun is gonna rise tomorrow, that people would drive -- would -- people would drive more. And now, you know, we're driving, we're going back in time so that it -- we're at about the level we were at the end of the second Clinton administration in terms of how much people are driving.
MR. PHINEAS BAXANDALLAnd the main thing is that this is something we should be paying attention to, and we should be changing the way that we invest in transportation and still -- instead of still just trying to build more highways, wider highways and kind of build out our grandfather's highway systems.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850, or email us at email@example.com. Let us know if you're driving less than you used to or if perhaps you've never had a car and how old were you when you bought that first car. Do you think Americans are driving less now than they did a year -- a decade ago? Ron Kirby, this national trend, how does it translate in our region? Driving has remained flat here, I gather, as the populations continue to grow. What does that look like in the numbers?
MR. RON KIRBYRight. Yes, we've been looking at this in the Washington region with great deal of interest. And between 2005 and 2011, we had an increase of 350,000 people in the region, just over 7 percent. But the total vehicle miles of travel was flat over that period, 110 million per day. The result of that after you do the math is that the vehicle miles of travel per capita has declined over that period, about 6 percent.
MR. RON KIRBYAnd we see it throughout the entire metropolitan area, to a greater extent, actually, in the outer suburbs where it's dropped by about 10 percent. So the MT per capita is definitely down.
FISHERAnd why would that be? You would think the outer suburbs would be more car dependent because there's less in the way of public transit, things are more sprawling. Why would the drop be greater there?
KIRBYWell, I think, really, that's the point. There more of MT to drop out there. And I think there are a lot of forces at work here. I think the economy does have a big role on this, and I think the fact we're seeing it all over the region, you know, tends to support the economy as having, you know, a major role in this. And I think the outer jurisdictions, when the economy is slow, there's a lot of discretionary driving that can be easily curtailed, and I think that's a lot of what we're seeing.
FISHERAnd so that's driven in part by the price of gasoline as well as the fact that with your people working, there's less commuting going on.
KIRBYThat's correct. The jobs are not growing, same degree.
FISHERSonari Glinton, you report on consumer trends, including the ups and downs of the auto industry. Talk a little bit about the place of cars in the American psyche today, especially among young people. Is getting a driver's license still the same kind of rite of passage for teenagers that it has been in recent decades?
MR. SONARI GLINTONNo, it's not. This summer is the 40th anniversary of the great car film, "American Graffiti," so the reason I'm in San Francisco was I was in Modesto which is where that film was set. And you can -- if you think about that movie, you can hear, you can see how central the automobile was to teenage life. And when I was talking to kids at, you know, not Mel's Diner, but In-N-Out Burger, they were just not, you know, very few of them had gotten their driver's license immediately on their 16th birthday because parents are more willing to drive their children.
MR. SONARI GLINTONThey're less willing to give them a car of their own. Kids are finer having, you know, their mom drop them off to their friends or to they're practice. When I was I kid, I would -- in Chicago, I would rather taken the train for an hour and a half than have my mother, you know, drop me off. And there's a cultural shift that's going on. But that said, you know, there are fewer vehicle miles travelled, but there are more cars themselves on the road. I mean, there are 234 million vehicles on the road. It's not we've, you know, we may have fallen out of love with driving, but we still love the automobile.
FISHERRight. Well, and a lot of people simply have no choice when it comes to that. You know, that's the way they have to get around. So it's especially striking when we see something like this University of Michigan study that's found that in 1983, 46 percent of all 16-year-olds had a driver's license. Flash forward to 2008 and only 31 percent did. That is a huge drop. And, Phineas Baxandall, when you look at that change among millennials, among young people in their teens and 20s, driving less than their parents did at the same age, what do you think the explanations are for that change in driving habits?
BAXANDALLWell, I think because of big change in priorities. I mean, even when I was a kid, people -- you knew what kind of car -- any of your friends who had a car, you could tell exactly what model car they had and anyone -- you could tell what model they were aspiring to have. It was just a big thing. And now, maybe people talk about their mobile phones that way. You know what kind of new model it is or is coming out.
BAXANDALLAnd people, I think, connect a little bit more through Facebook or texting or other things of that sort. The car is, kind of, been displaced as a status item. I'd like, if I will, though, to address the issue about the economy...
BAXANDALL...if that's all right for a moment?
BAXANDALLYeah. I think, certainly, the economy has got to be part of the story. You know, if we had gangbuster growth, undoubtedly, there would be more driving. But I think it's really misplaced to see this as, primarily, a story about the economy. And part of it is that, you know, it's not that people aren't travelling transit -- use transit. Trips are up by double digits. The change in people reversing the increase in driving and moving to a decrease in driving happened actually after 2004 was the peak. So we had a number of years of healthy economic growth with reduced driving before the economy started to tank. So it really is not a story where just the economy turns one way and driving turns with it. It turned before that.
BAXANDALLAnd lastly, if you look at millennials who are employed and who are affluent, they're also reducing their driving faster than anyone else. And, you know, a final thing, the states that have had the biggest drop-offs in driving are by no means the states that were hit hardest by the recession. So it's really not something which is primarily an economic story.
FISHERSo, Ron Kirby, if this is not entirely a case of riding the ups and downs of the economic fortunes of this area or of the country but rather is a real and lasting cultural shift and attitude toward cars and other means of transportation, what does that therefore imply here in the Washington area for how we spend our money and what transportation resources we focus on?
KIRBYWell, I think the question is how is this gonna look in 2040? That's what we are looking at in long-range planning. And I think there's definitely -- I mean, I do agree with the value change for younger people. The automobile not being the status symbol it was, you know, 20, 30 years ago. I think that has changed. I see it more as a functional device now than the extension of personality. That's certainly true. But I think also, you know, I mean, we look at this group, 16 to 24 age group in 1994, and we looked at them again in 2007, 2008.
KIRBYAnd one of the striking things is that, I mean, indeed, they were doing less driving and more transit use. But also a few of them were working and more of them were in school during this more recent period. And there was a big drop in social recreational travel, not much change in shopping and other kinds of trips. So I think, again, you know, the big difference between the amount of folks in school versus working, you know, has an effect.
KIRBYI think that's partly driven by the economy. And I think the really tough issue here, looking forward, is how do we untangle these various forces that are at work? There are a lot of forces at work. There's -- the baby boom is retiring. Their trip-making is declining as well. It's all wrapped together into this total, and untangling it all is a complex issue.
FISHERWe're talking with Ron Kirby from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Sonari Glinton, the business reporter for NPR, you talked to a lot of automakers. What are they thinking as they look into the future and trying to figure out where cars fit in in American life in the decades to come?
GLINTONWell, you know, when you talk to smart or executives, they say that, you know, they have to change their model of thinking about what they do. They have to think more about being in mobility and less about necessarily getting -- they have to think more about getting you from place to place and less about, you know, direct ownership of one individual car per one individual person or household.
GLINTONSo that the idea is that, you know, whether it's car-sharing or thinking of new ways of pushing transportation. The smart ones see that as the future. So, you know, think car-sharing programs like car2go is, you know, headed up by Daimler, one of the world's largest car companies where they are getting into the space of, you know, between private ownership and semi-private ownership or semi-private transportation.
GLINTONIt's important for them to sort of look beyond and -- but that said, in many ways, the auto industry, you know, is really doing well right now. You know, we're at -- they're selling as many cars as before the recession. They're as profitable as they've been in decades. You know, this is, you know, they're not necessarily -- it's not doing gloom for them yet.
FISHEROK. Excuse me. If you like to join our conservation, you can call 1-800-433-8850. And when we come back after a short break, we'll take your calls and talk with our guests about why this change in driving culture has occurred and what transportation will look like in the future.
FISHERWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo. And we are talking with Ron Kirby from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Phineas Baxandall from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Sonari Glinton, business reporter for NPR, about the decline of driving in America both as a part of our culture and as a piece of our economy.
FISHERAnd we have an email from Lou Anne (sp?) saying that since motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans in the first half of their lives, this is a good news story. I agree that spending on pedestrian safety should be increased. All public transit users are also pedestrians and have the same right to be protected by government as people who drive cars."
FISHERAnd, similarly, from Nicky, an email saying, "Maybe 16 year olds aren't driving as much now because their parents are better informed. Sixteen-year-old drivers are at very high risk of crash involvement and we're one of the few advanced countries that allows young teens to drive." And, Phineas Baxandall, as you look at this cultural change, as millennials are moving into the workforce, are they going to be moving to the suburbs and marrying and starting families and driving more than they do now, following that sort of typical American pattern, or are we seeing a shift in how people construct their lives?
BAXANDALLI think both actually. I think there's a clear pattern over the generations which will continue to happen that people will drive more when they're in that 35 to 55-year-old range than they do when they're young. I think it's clear that millenials will drive more as they get older. But that isn't really the -- the important question is, will millenials drive as much as their parents did when they were at a similar stage of life?
BAXANDALLAnd the fact that millenials, you know, according to most recent data, had cut their driving by 23 percent from that -- from 2001 and that they are the people who are most likely to say that they want to live and walk old neighborhoods and reduce their driving.
BAXANDALLI think that's something which is really important and something we should look at, not just because the millenials are the largest generation in America right now, not just because they are the people who are gonna mainly use or not use whatever transportation projects we decide to build, but also because they are the people who are gonna mostly pay for them.
FISHERLet's hear from Betsy in Washington. Betsy, you're on the air.
BETSYHi. I do think that the municipal districts around Washington, D.C., have done a fantastic job in attracting teens using public transits. Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County give reduced or even free fares to school kids so that their moms and dads don't drive them to school both ways.
BETSYAnd I know that our family saved $1,500 last year by putting our D.C. kid on a public transportation metro and Montgomery County Ride On bus to get to his private school in Potomac, Md., rather than driving across town to Taneytown roundtrips, morning and afternoon, so that he could take the school for $3,000 a year.
BETSYSo I think public transit and the decisions that planners have made and public transportation advocates have made have really given financial benefits, road traffic benefits and this change in attitudes among millenials. You just have to get there. It doesn't matter how you get there.
KIRBYWell, I think, clearly, it's a good thing that young people are not driving as much for all the reasons that have been stated already. And there are other forces at work. Obviously, you know, electronic communications, I think, has made a big difference. Telecommuting has increased dramatically in this region, 27 percent in 2013, people were averaging 1.4 days a week. Ten years ago, it was 13 percent. So that's a big impact as well.
KIRBYSo you're seeing effects across, you know, all of these age groups. I think the millenials are part of it, but there are factors occurring, you know, in different -- in all these age groups.
FISHERAnd one result of having less driving is less congestion on the roads, and you're actually -- you have a study that looked at whether the new Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County over into Prince George's has reduced congestion in the surrounding area. What did you find?
KIRBYWell, we did look at that and we found, yes, it had reduced congestion in the surrounding areas. But then we looked at the region as a whole, and congestion was down in the entire region. It was down to a greater degree around the Intercounty Connector. But if you look at the percent it takes, you know, over free flow time to get to work, it was 21 percent in 2010, has dropped to about 13 percent in 2012. So that reduction in VMT and along with the improvements that we have made to the transportation system are showing some reductions in congestion.
FISHERAnd, Phineas Baxandall, as you look at this movement around the country toward walkable urbanism, the sense of reviving cities and bringing people back in to live close to work and to restaurants and shopping, is that happening across the board, across various age groups, are people embracing that, and is that contributing to this decline that we're seeing in driving?
BAXANDALLYeah. I mean, the data on age-specific driving is, unfortunately, fairly scarce. But the best data that we have shows that it is -- almost every single age group certainly is young, middle and old, and it seems to be something which has happened in almost every state. It's not isolated to areas like Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., has seen a larger decrease in driving than most parts of the nation, but it is, by now means, in urban or Washington, D.C., specific phenomenon.
FISHERLet's go to Carmen in Ellicott City. Carmen, you're on the air.
CARMENHi. Thanks for taking my call.
CARMENJust wanted to have a comment in that I'm hoping that the millenials are starting to look at things kind of an -- from my perspective, what I say, is instead of looking at how many miles I drive and how much gasoline I'm gonna save if I shortened but rather how much carbon monoxide I'm not gonna put out in taking shorter trips or not driving as much.
FISHERSonari Glinton, is there a -- are there -- is there an industry that's popping up to deal with this shift in behavior? Is the sense of greater environmental awareness and concern transforming into a business that either takes partly the place of the auto industry or in some way benefits from this new concern?
GLINTONWell, you know, if you, you know, you and I could, you know, sit down and write an app and come up with the new model for, you know, transportation. And there's, you know, what's interesting is I think that, you know, especially look at the car sharing world, you know, things like Uber, that peer-to-peer driving. Even, you know, kids, you know, Facebook and Twitter, they say, "Hey, I'm going to a mall," you know, "Can somebody pick me up?"
GLINTONYou know, as we get more comfortable sharing our information -- and it's not just young people. It's, you know, it's not just millennials. It's, you know, it's across the board. As we get more comfortable sharing our information, there is a lot of opportunity for, you know, business to go in. And, you know, traditionally, there was just a private -- there was private transportation, there was semi-private transportation, there was private transportation.
GLINTONAnd now we've realized because of social networking, because of apps that there are these spaces in between that can go. And so if you're a millennial, it's not that they don't want to get from place to place, it's that they have more choices. If you give me a choice, I might choose to do...
CARMENYeah. But it's not just the choice but a conscious decision to save not just money but save your footprint of how much you're destroying the Earth. That's what I'm talking about is a conscious...
GLINTONI'm not convinced that...
CARMEN...decision that I hope people are doing more so.
CARMENAnd when people say, well, you know, you're not gonna save a whole lot of miles or gas or whatever, I don't care. I tell them it's the carbon monoxide that I'm gonna not put out. I'm gonna try to leave this planet a little bit cleaner by not making that trip.
FISHEROK. Thanks, Carmen.
GLINTONWell, I'm a little -- I think that what's underlying these trends is more than just any one specific thing. Part of it is for some people believing it's the environment, but it's also just a fundamental difference. People, you know, cars represent freedom, but they also represent isolation. Now, if you look at kids or adults who are texting all the time in their cars, you can see that that lack of connection that the automobile represents in that they would much rather be connected, and that's a part of what's going on. We want to be connected, and the car sometimes represents being isolated.
FISHERInteresting. There's an email we have from Geraldine saying that, "Many people still need cars, that there are many serious omissions from discussions of driving in the Washington Metro region, and that those who are advocating public transit don't take into account that not everyone lives near a metro station or has access to busses that senior citizens and others unable to walk or stand for long periods of time can't be accommodated on most public transportation.
FISHER"And that people who live in suburban areas are not served by transportation and need cars to meet their basic daily living requirements." So we are nowhere near a point where we will be relying primarily on public transit. Wouldn't you agree, Ron Kirby?
KIRBYThat's absolutely the case. I mean, over 60 percent of people still drive alone to work despite all the progress we've made with transit. Excuse me. So that's important.
FISHERAnd, Phineas Baxandall, the -- this huge shift in modes of transportation is primarily an urban phenomenon, isn't it? Are there vast parts of the country where things really haven't changed that much?
BAXANDALLWell, those are two different questions. I think the change has been a -- not just an urban phenomenon, but it is true that the car is gonna continue to be the center of our transportation system for quite a long time. That doesn't mean that people won't find ways to combine trips or work more at home or shop online instead of going to the shopping mall or these other kinds of things.
BAXANDALLIt's -- that can happen at the same time where, you know, we've seen this pre-dramatic shifts at the same time that most communities don't have real access to public transit. And those that do have public transit, a majority of them have either cut service or increased fare sharply.
FISHERSo then how...
KIRBYOh, no. And only 5 percent -- in the nationwide, only 5 percent of commuters use public transportation. So this is, you know, Washington D.C., has a very robust public transit system. As you move, you know, out into the country, you know, there's just no infrastructure for, you know, getting to and from work in the same way that you might have in Washington, D.C.
FISHERAnd, Phineas Baxandall, your public interest research group has advocated for rethinking transportation planning based on this decline in driving. So how do you think we should re-orient those transportation dollars, and is that something that needs to be done on a purely local regional basis, or is there some sort of national policy that would help move things toward a new paradigm?
BAXANDALLWell, both. You know, it is a national phenomenon. It's not just localities. Places like Wyoming and Alaska have also reduced their driving, you know, some of the most sharpest places. What needs to be done is there's just not enough transportation dollars, you know, gas tax is the main sources of our transportation. The gas tax has been frozen for 20 years while inflation has eroded its value.
BAXANDALLEvery time we decide to spend a dollar on something like the inter county connector, it's a dollar we're not spending to repair our structurally deficient bridges or to build some new light rail system or bus system, something of that sort. So what we really need to do is think really hard about where the money is most needed. And inevitably, you know, transportation planners like Mr. Kirby here, they have a job of a kind of crystal ball gazing into the future.
BAXANDALLAs Mr. Kirby was talking about, we need to think about 2040. And, you know, if we're spending money on intercounty connectors, which aren't nearly as good a return for the money as if that money was spent on expanding transportation modes, like public transit or like fixing our bridges, then that's a real waste of money that the people who are gonna be paying for it, the millennials, are gonna be suffering for.
BAXANDALLSo we really -- it behooves us to take responsibility to look at all those projects that are kind of been moving in this pipeline under the assumption that we're gonna continue to have this 60-year trends going. And we're gonna have to cancel some of those projects and spend that money better.
FISHERWell, Ron Kirby, we have a tweet from Dara, (sp?) saying, "I had a car from the age of 17, got my auto insurance bill in January and said enough. I got rid of my car, I love it, I live in D.C." So that's a very urban perspective. It's almost something a -- that you could only feel if you're living in a city. How do you, as a transportation planner, square that desire for people like Dara to focus on non-car alternatives with the need -- the huge backlog that you have for road and bridge and highway improvements in the suburbs?
KIRBYYou know, we have different kinds of development in different parts of the region. And the fact that people like Dara here who can live in the District and not have a car is just terrific. And we're encouraging that in mixed-used centers throughout the region. And we're seeing that phenomenon not just downtown but in mixed-used centers out in the suburbs as well.
KIRBYHowever, there's a very large part of the region, that is -- was pointed out earlier, is not close to public transit and still developed a pretty low density, both housing and also employment. A lot of the employment is going in the outer jurisdictions. So we need road capacity as well as public transit. And we've made major investments in public transit in this region, and it's been great -- greatly to our benefit. We do need to maintain it and the roads better, but we need capacity across all modes.
FISHERLet's hear from Emmanuel in Silver Spring. Emmanuel, you're on the air.
EMMANUELHey. Good show, good topic. Thank you for taking my call.
EMMANUELGot a question regarding the Capital Bikeshare. I think it's a great idea with bikes around the city. So my question is, do we foresee that, you know, expanded? It seems to be only one company that's either contracts with the company or has that agreement with the company -- I'm sorry -- with the city. Do we see that expanding maybe even to the suburbs encouraging, you know, more friendlier -- bike-friendlier roads? I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
FISHERThank you. Ron Kirby.
KIRBYYes. It's already expanding to the suburbs. We have it in Arlington and Alexandria. And we have projects coming in Reston and Bethesda and other parts of the metropolitan area. So where we have these dent centers, you will see these bike-sharing programs developing. I mean, this technology has allowed these kinds of bike sharing, car haring, Car2Go kinds of services to be available. And I think it's gonna be to a great deal of benefit to everybody.
FISHERAnd, Sonari Glinton, is there any evidence that this alternative transportation modes will turnout to be profitable for the companies and investors both when it comes to the bike sharing and the car-sharing businesses?
GLINTONWell, you know, there's only about 1 million car share users in North America. And so that the real thing is, can they scale these models to go to exurbs, to go to suburbs, to go to rural areas? I mean, if there is somebody who has, you know, who can do that, then there is a tremendous appetite for that. There seems to be -- like I said, there's filling in the gaps between private transportation and public transportation.
GLINTONIt seems to be a place that the Internet and -- not the Internet -- you know, the smartphone technology is really good at and figuring out a way to get you to point A to point to B in a way that fits with how you're gonna be traveling. Maybe it's a bike share, maybe it's a car service, maybe it's, you know, a temporary car rental. There is so much space, and I think that there is so many things that we haven't thought of.
GLINTONAnd what millennials are showing is really when they have choices, they're gonna take them, you know, and it is not just I'm gonna buy a car and keep it for 7 1/2 years or 11 years or whatever that is.
FISHERWe have an email from Susan, and she's a 60-year-old woman in Fairfax County who rides a bike for most trips and lives near the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, the Route 66 of bike commuting. And she says, "The driving is tension provoking but biking is relaxing. I get to do -- eat everything I want. I don't have to go to the gym." Ron Kirby, is there -- in a few seconds we have left, are -- is there need for more bike routes because these are pretty packed?
KIRBYAbsolutely. And I think that's an example of, you know, it's not just the millennials, when they're given choices will use them. People of all ages will use these services if they're given the opportunity.
FISHERDo you have specific bike routes that are going to built in the coming years?
KIRBYWe have a pretty extensive bike network in the Washington region, and we are expanding it all the time.
FISHERRon Kirby is director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He joined us here in the studio. And from Boston, we were with Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst and director of transportation programs at the United States Public Interest Research Group. And joining us from San Francisco was Sonari Glinton, business reporter for National Public Radio. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks very much for joining us.
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