Point of View

As people move closer, less need for roads and transit

November 13, 2013 

Is America’s driving boom over? Robert Steuterville writing for smart growth planning blog BetterCities.net, answers “Yes!” If this surprising assertion is correct, what does this mean for “urbanism,” “smart growth” and regional transportation policy in the Triangle?

The trend toward less driving received national attention in May with the release of a report by U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Per capita vehicle miles traveled has steadily dropped since 2005, declining for 93 consecutive months. The turnabout follows six decades of steady and substantial rises in VMT fueled by cheap gasoline, suburban development and women entering the workforce. The continuation of the trend downward makes actuarial sense. Post-war baby boomers, the most auto-centric generation in U.S. history, are now well into the Golden Years. Retirement brings less driving in total and fewer cars on the road during peak rush hours.

According to the PIRG report, the trend to drive less is also pronounced among the young. Between 2001 and 2009, the average yearly number of miles driven by 16- to 35-year-olds dropped a staggering 23 percent. The trend dovetails with the major shift of developers toward walkable neighborhoods. “Millennials are twice as likely as Baby Boomers and Generation Xers to express a desire to live in a city,” PIRG said. According to a 2011 survey by the National Association for Realtors, 62 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said they would prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods rather than conventional suburbs. Employers today are allowing telecommuting from home and flexible work hours, which again mean fewer commuter miles driven and fewer cars on the highway on any given work day.

What do or should these dramatic changes mean for public and private policymakers in the Triangle as we/they plan for the future?

Lifestyle communities where people live, work and play with only secondary reliance upon the automobile are now financeable and marketable. The North Hills Mall was a 1960s relic pronounced dead numerous times before John Kane showed the perseverance and creativity to add offices and new homes to the retail, creating a true mixed-use, walkable “Midtown.”

Similarly, the latest recreation of Cameron Village is based upon the addition of around 1,000 new apartments/condos to a walkable mixed-use environment. Many of these new homes will be occupied by government and university employees who otherwise would be queuing up each morning and night for long commutes.

The Urban Land Institute recently convened a panel to discuss “reinvention” of the Research Triangle Park. The consensus of the experts was that the sprawling office campuses of the park’s heyday are not appropriate for today’s high-tech employers and/or the 21st century workforce. Less office space per employee is needed. The work space should be less formal and the buildings smaller with fewer parking spaces. Walkability between buildings, interspersed retail and services facilities are desired. When asked if mass transit is imperative for the RTP to regain/maintain its national preeminence, the panel collectively answered no. Transit would certainly be a plus, but what is imperative is housing immediately adjacent to and interspersed within RTP. Workers living near their places of employment mean fewer miles driven and fewer cars on local highways during rush hours.

The dramatic change in driving trends should/must also serve as a reality check for public transportation agencies. For decades, N.C. public officials have planned successive rounds of highway expansion and promoted the need for “transit” based on future traffic volume forecasts.

Those forecasts have been determined largely by straight-line extrapolation of past trends in the growth of traffic volumes – on the assumption that the trend line will simply continue into the future. Fortunately for all of us who would ride the roads or rails, the past assumptions are proving false. Triangle population is not growing as rapidly as it did a decade ago, and as stated above, VMT per capita have decreased.

If Triangle transportation agencies update their models to acknowledge that the VMT trend line of the 20th century should no longer be used to predict 21st century traffic volumes, many of the planned highway expansion projects now on the books can no longer be justified.

Despite the continued outcry for transit funding in the Triangle, the same conclusions should be drawn. A dysfunctional national government and increased social program spending mean that Triangle taxpayers cannot rely upon federal dollars for transit infrastructure. If we go at all, we must go it alone.

The delay of Wake County’s commissioners in selecting a transit plan option may prove fortuitous. Perhaps local governments should step back from the transit precipice for a few years while transportation models are updated and, in the interim, invest public tax dollars in increasing teacher pay, reducing classroom size, and the other things necessary to win back public confidence in our public school systems. Corridors to accommodate future transit right-of-way alternatives should be defined and preserved, but there are higher public spending priorities today than buying more buses or trains.

Clyde Holt is a partner in the Raleigh office of the multi-state Smith Moore Leatherwood law firm. Mr. Holt concentrates on government regulation, municipal zoning and environmental law. He is a former planning and zoning attorney for the City of Raleigh.

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