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Responding to Cox and Poole, Part 2: What Is it with the Kids These Days?

(Part 1 of our response can be found here.)

I’ll admit to being surprised at the speed at which the “Millennials hate cars” meme has gone from outside-the-box observation to parody.  

Wendell Cox and Robert Poole spend most of their critiques of our A New Direction report laying into the notion that Millennials are in any way different from you and me – other than that they don’t have jobs, they’re buried under student loans, and they’re stuck living in their parents’ basements.  In other words, the difference in their driving behaviors over the last decade can be chalked up entirely to economic factors such as unemployment and high gas prices.

Before we jump into this, it’s worth taking a moment to clear something up. The question of whether Millennials “like” cars and driving may be important to the editors of lifestyle pages, but it’s not terribly important for our purposes here. There are plenty of people who detest their hour-long commutes but who endure them day after day nonetheless. Their vehicle travel still counts.

What matters in planning for the future is whether at least some of the behavior changes that Millennials have shown over the past decade – whatever their cause – will persist as they grow older. Millennials will almost certainly drive more as they get older than they do now; that’s not the issue. Rather, the question is whether they will drive less than their parents did at the same age and stage of life.

As we explain in our report, this question of which path the Millennials will take is critically important to figuring out future transportation demand – and, by extension, our transportation investment needs. Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. and will be heading into their peak driving years by the end of this decade. In addition, Millennials and those who follow will be the main beneficiaries (or victims) of the investment decisions we make today … and ultimately will be the ones who pay the bills. So we owe it to them to make smart decisions.

Cox and Poole suggest that economic factors are fully responsible for the change in Millennials’ driving habits. They make two arguments: 1) that the trends we attribute to Millennials – increasing desire to live in walkable neighborhoods, openness to non-driving modes of travel, and adoption of technological answers to transportation problems – aren’t real, and 2) that economic changes are sufficient to explain the changes of the last decade.

We’ll take these arguments one at a time – the first in this post, the second in a subsequent one. But let me give away the punch line: one can accept both of Cox and Poole’s propositions and still be extremely skeptical about the degree to which future vehicle travel in the United States will rise in the decades to come.

One shouldn’t, however, accept either of their propositions. Let’s address the first: the idea that there have not been any changes worth noting in Millennials’ (or other Americans’) lifestyle and transportation choices.

Are Young People Moving to Cities?

Everyone knows that young people these days are migrating to hip, urban neighborhoods, right? Not so fast says Wendell Cox, who uses 2000 and 2010 Census data to demonstrate that young people are not flocking to central cities but are, in fact, increasingly migrating to suburbs. If you look at Cox’s data you do find that, mirabile dictu, the share of 20 to 29 year olds living in the suburbs increased over the last decade!

For our purposes, of course, we care about the trends of the past only to the degree that they explain the future, and here’s where Cox’s choice of boundary dates leads to trouble. The 2000 to 2010 period just happens to include the housing bubble – a massive, one-time inflow of speculative capital into the construction of vast amounts of suburban and exurban housing. It would be a shock if, given the size of that historic event, the overall population of young people in those areas did not increase between 2000 and 2010. It would also be a shock if, given the monumental damage done by the housing bubble to the American economy, a similar event took place again any time soon.

More recent trends tell a different story. According to the Brookings Institution, population growth rates in suburban and exurban areas peaked in 2005-2006 and have declined dramatically since then. Central cities have grown at a faster rate than suburbs and exurbs over the last two years, reversing a nine decade-long trend of increasing suburbanization. There are reasons beyond Millennials’ stated preferences for walkable living why this will likely continue. The market for multi-family housing is recovering much more rapidly than the single-family market, and real estate experts and demographers project that the combination of retiring Baby Boomers and increasing numbers of single-family households will result in limited demand for new sprawl-style, auto dependent, McMansion-type subdivisions as far as the eye can see.

Are People Switching to Transit?

Cox writes that that our report “gives the impression that instead of driving, Americans are switching to other modes of transport, principally transit” and concludes that “The data shows that as people drove less, they did not switch to transit.” Poole similarly says that “As for the alleged shift of Millennials and others from driving to transit, biking, and walking, that's very hard to find in the data.”

It’s actually not hard to find that shift in the data – Cox and Poole cite the data right in their blog posts! Cox estimates that about 2 percent of the reduction in miles driven has been replaced with miles traveled via transit. Poole says, citing a recent presentation by researchers at the U.S. Department of Transportation, “They find that increased transit use accounts for only about 1% of the decrease in auto travel, with bicycle and walk trips appearing to account for only a few percent more.”

Poole and Cox engage in some serious rhetorical sleight of hand here. Just as Poole (as we’ve seen in Part 1) attempts to elide the difference between slowing per-capita growth in vehicle travel and negative growth, so too do he and Cox attempt to get us to think that a mild increase in transit use is equivalent to people “not switching to transit.”

What Cox and Poole are really trying to argue is that the mild increases in the use of transit and other non-driving modes that have taken place over the last decade are insignificant – and that they shouldn’t factor into how we think about future transportation demand.

That’s wrong for a few reasons.

  • The mild uptick in transit ridership has come amid many of the same economic and employment headwinds that Cox and Poole suggest are responsible for the decline in driving – fewer jobs, for example, should translate into fewer commutes by both cars and transit. Yet transit use has increased even as driving has declined.
  • Transit has been subject to some particular headwinds that haven’t faced drivers, such as the service cut-backs and increases in fares that have taken place in many cities during the recession. No Interstate highways that I know of were forced to close down during the recession, most roads remain un-tolled, and the federal gas tax hasn’t budged.   
  • As with trends in driving, the recent uptick in transit use is the reversal of a long-time trend of decline, then stagnation, in transit ridership. Even if the increase in transit ridership has been small in the context of aggregate national vehicle travel, it is a change in trajectory of the trend and it is worth considering the possibility that it will continue.
  • The upward trend in some other alternative modes – particularly bicycling, which has seen a 73 percent increase in bike commuting since 2000 – has been dramatic. Yes, the total amount of travel taking place on bikes remains very small, but it is increasing so rapidly in some cities that it is not hard to imagine a time in the near future when it is a significant piece of the urban transportation picture.

Of course, the increase in transit ridership is just one of several changes contributing to the recent decline in driving. As we explained in our 2012 report on youth driving trends, the decline in driving was the result of young people taking fewer trips, shorter trips, and a smaller share of those trips in cars. All three of those factors are important.

The jury is still out on the impacts of technological changes – particularly the increasing use of smartphones and social networking, which have set off an explosion of new, internet-enabled transportation services over just the last few years. But it is worth noting that a recent survey by Zipcar found that one-quarter of young Americans report that they are already using tools like real-time transit information, car-sharing, ride-sharing, and bike-sharing to reduce their driving.

The point of all this is that Cox and Poole would very much like you to believe that Millennials are just itching to follow the residential and transportation footsteps of their parents – but that without jobs or disposable income, they simply can’t. There is a lot of uncertainty here – there is no good historical precedent for the recent recession, which makes it hard to see what might exist at the other end of the tunnel.

But I don’t think it is possible to conclude based on the combination of survey evidence, observations from knowledgeable experts (particularly in the real estate and automobile industries), and emerging data on actual housing and transportation behaviors of this age group that there isn’t at least some there there. How much is open to question, which is why we thought it prudent to consider several scenarios of possible travel growth in our A New Direction report. No amount of irrelevant data comparisons and slick rhetoric, however, can make those shifts simply disappear – no matter how much Cox and Poole might like them to.