Caring Less about Cars
In the decades after World War II, cars represented much more than mere transportation. From finned convertibles to the VW bug, they brimmed with personality and symbolized the road to freedom. America’s passion for cars, fueled by Detroit automakers, spawned the federal interstate system and a long era of auto-centered planning. That legacy is evident today in sprawling development across the country, much of which depends on automobiles.
Yet over the last decade, driving in American households fell nearly 10 percent. The decline in automotive enthusiasm is most marked among millennials (those born between roughly 1983 and 2000). Young people are delaying getting licenses, and their rates of car ownership are down.
At an average annual cost upwards of $5,000, cars are prohibitively expensive for those working low-wage jobs and struggling to pay off student debt. And sums spent on gas, repairs, registration and insurance are a mere down payment on the total automotive price tag. That tab includes greenhouse gas emissions; military expenditures to maintain petroleum supply lines; hazards associated with fossil fuel extraction and transport; and driving-related injuries and deaths (which in the United States totaled 4 million and 33,561, respectively, in 2012).
Once-hidden costs are now in clear view. As with “the great and powerful Oz,” the curtain has been pulled back on the automotive industry that captivated us for decades. Millennials, particularly, aren’t buying its bill of goods. More than a third of them in a University of Michigan survey indicated that they were “too busy” to drive. In a fast-paced culture where every minute counts, driving is increasingly viewed as a waste of time.
For older citizens, it’s more a matter of “aging out of their cars,” notes Susan Moreau, manager of the Maine Department of Transportation’s multi-modal planning division. The AARP predicts that by 2025, one in five American drivers will be over age 65. Already, one fifth of senior citizens are non-drivers – more than half of whom don’t (can’t) leave home most days because they’re in rural or suburban settings with no public transit options.
That’s a particular concern in Maine, the nation’s oldest and most rural state, according to the 2010 Census. What planners call “mobility gaps” abound here, keeping people from getting to medical appointments, purchasing necessities and joining in social activities. Currently, nearly all of Maine’s elder non-drivers rely on friends and family for rides – hardly a sustainable or efficient transportation system.
Two critical needs identified by the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, are improved public transportation and new economic incentives and support for senior housing located in downtowns or near public transit. To help meet the latter need, Maine House Speaker Mark Eves has proposed a general obligation bond for the state to build 1,000 energy-efficient and affordable senior-housing units close to services.
At both ends of the age spectrum, people increasingly want to live near restaurants, shops and cultural amenities. A 2014 PACTS (Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System) survey found just over half of the respondents (and among younger ones, more than two-thirds) envisioned themselves in the next five to 10 years living in a community with smaller homes, public transit and opportunities to walk to shops, schools and restaurants. Fewer than a third of respondents saw themselves in neighborhoods with larger houses and lots where amenities were all a drive away.
The challenge for communities, says Carl Eppich, PACTS’ senior transportation planner, is to keep pace with that growing need by providing more transit options and building affordable housing where people can readily walk to workplaces and stores. When housing demand exceeds supply, rising prices can close out young adults and seniors.
Towns can create more housing options by amending zoning ordinances to permit accessory apartments and dwelling units (often known as granny flats or in-law apartments). Accessory units near downtowns allow more people to function without cars and give homeowners a chance to “age in place” while reducing costs. “The whole point is to give community members choice,” notes Jane Lafleur, executive director of Friends of Midcoast Maine. “Having people of multiple ages makes for a vibrant community.”
Transportation planners are starting to make infrastructure improvements to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and transit riders, and keep them safer in the presence of cars. The Maine Department of Transportation adopted a Complete Streets Policy last June, and both Portland and Bangor have active Complete Streets committees. The idea behind these efforts is that streets should be designed for everyone, not just speeding traffic.
For those ready to relinquish car ownership, there are more alternatives every year: car-sharing programs (like Portland’s U-Car); informal car rentals (such as RelayRides); and peer-to-peer taxi services like Uber and Lift.
Urban traffic congestion and parking challenges are fueling renewed ridership of mass transit (up 37 percent nationally between 1995 and 2013). Freeport and Yarmouth, for example, recently voted in support of a commuter bus service. Telecommuting and shopping online further reduce the need to drive.
To see priorities shift from cars to people is heartening, and bodes well for the future. Less driving translates to greater health for everyone, fewer injuries and fatalities, lower greenhouse gas emissions and more sustainable communities.
With all that to gain, why would we waste time behind the wheel?