Tuesday, April 24, 2012


THE DECLINE OF CAR TRAVEL IN VERMONT, NEW ENGLAND: IT IS NOT JUST DEMOGRAPHICS AND GAS PRICES AS SURVEYS SHOW IT INVOLVES LOTS OF FACTORS INCLUDING THE APPARENT YOUNGER CONSUMER CHOOSING THE “APPLE-ING” OF LIFE OVER CARCENTRICITY A historic upheaval in U.S. car use and travel trends suggests that the changing curve from ever upward to flat and declining in car comes from some surprising sources, sources unconnected to the easy to point to elements like population growth, gas prices and income stagnation. In slow population growth states--like  five of the six in New England states—these new factors practically assures negative car travel numbers this decade. A study released this month reported in the Financial Times  (April 19, 2012) helps amplify the historic low of New England car travel growth of 3 percent 2000-2010, and this reporting adds to the mounting evidence other New England states will soon join Rhode Island which recorded an unprecedented auto age decade to decade negative 2000-2010, -0.3, in annual vehicle miles of travel. The Financial Times reported U.S. study showing a five percent decline in those ages 14-34 with a drivers license during th last decade. And those aged16-33 with incomes over $70,000 from 2000 to 2009 doubled their use of public transit and cycling. (Nationally all urban trips by bicycle modal share has hung around one percent, but still, doubling any bicycle modal share stands out.) And for that same age group miles driven actually decreased.  Note All these trends do not take full account of the impacts of the 2008 economic collapse and continued gas prices rising faster than general inflation. The Financial Times piece says Detroit carmakers worrying about this trend which hits directly on existing and future car sales potentials. These national trends simply add to the New England demographic typified by Vermont which the U.S. census projects 2000-2030 no increase in 65-and-under population while the the older population will more than double, the latter characterized by historically driving about 40 percent less miles per year than the prime aged drivers, 25-55. My immediate family—myself, three 30-something sons with two married and no children—may be unusual but among seven adults in three households there are two vehicles and three of the seven adults without a drivers license. All live in urban areas and the two cars, both in one household, get used for job commutes of about five miles. Three of our four households depend entirely on walking, bicycling and public transit. Recall the New England numbers from the past decade—3.7% population growth, 3.1% growth in annual vehicle miles of travel 2010 versus 2000, and 0.6% increase in gasoline use. With Vermont leading the three states with negative gas consumption during 2000-2010 with a 8% drop, New England may move very close to 1990 gas consumption by the end of this decade. If the coming generation banks on giving up the car for an Apple-centric, social networking, urban car-free culture, the car travel numbers for this decade may not only decline but continue to decline at a rate not far from the New England 16% 1990s decrease to 3% in the last decade. This could mean a double digit decline this decade, more than my own estimate of -3 to -8% for 2010-2020. My own estimate takes into account the changing age demographic, gas prices increasing faster than incomes and increasing initiatives in tamping down driving mostly through encouraging and improving alternative modes—but that estimate does not contemplate wholesale abandonment of the younger generation of car travel altogether or in the case of the well-to-do dropping their car annual miles of travel. Finally, the New England numbers would be similar to those in other slower growing parts of the nation, primarily the other northeast and north central states and signal a rapid change in travel habits in the faster growing population regions. Finally for Vermont, other New England States, and those with slow growing states which will see mostly 65-and-over population growth consider the mountain to climb even to consider any vehicle miles of travel growth from now until 2030. First, you have to keep all the following factors equal to conditions today: (1) no change in the price of gasoline; (2) no investment in reducing solo commuting or car use in general; (3) no increase relative to vehicle travel of any public transportation from trains to buses; and (4) no efforts at increasing walking trips, bicycle trips or densification of urban land uses. Second, the trend towards less driver licensing and car use by the coming generation—particularly by the well-to-do, must return to turn of the century status. Given these two conditions then—and Vermont is the best example—the only growth which can occur in car travel primarily comes from the increase in the 65-and-over population, the only population segment which is projected to increase in the next 20 years. Moreover, the 65-and-over drivers vehicle miles of travel are 40% less than the average for all drivers. At best one gets—given these assumption—the potential of 0.2-03% growth yearly, 2-3% growth per decade. Perhaps this scenario gives a picture of why the “car travel bears” continue to see negative growth for some time to come.

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