Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

This past week saw the return of the annual spectacle known as CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Conference — to Washington. As is inevitable whenever conservatives gather, invocations of the greatness of Ronald Reagan ran thick. But with a new and charismatic president in office looking to roll back key aspects of the Reagan era, the usual reverie rang a bit hollow. Mr. Reagan, born in 1911, walked out of the White House a generation ago, and America is now a much different place.

The country has been surprisingly slow to cotton to the general shift underway. Even as politicians focus on the pressure retiring Baby Boomers will place on public resources, they seem reluctant to grasp the implications of shifting demographics for other areas of policy. But these changes are making themselves felt, whether we acknowledge them or not.

In 1980, Boomers were in their twenties and thirties, constituting the largest cohort of young householders in the nation’s history. Politics during the era was relentlessly suburban. Residents of the low-tax, low-public service suburbs were happy with their lot and expected their federal government to trim down. Tax rates fell and the welfare structure built to address the social problems increasingly confined to urban centers was attacked (though defense spending ensured a steady flow of red ink). These political impulses were reflected in policy choices that continued to encourage freeway construction and automobility, and in the housing markets, where child-rearing Boomers kicked off a new wave of suburbanization and sprawl.

But 1980 was nearly three decades ago. Boomers are now approaching retirement and looking for an active life even as they age and see their driving skills deteriorate. And their children have far smaller households than previous generations. The economic fundamentals underlying suburban growth have been turned on their head.

Outer suburbs, once considered the American dream, are now the refuge of cash-strapped families forced to extreme commute for the sake of affordable housing. They now suffer many of the ills formerly confined to urban centers, from fiscal struggles to crime and drug issues. In center cities, generational change helped reduce urban crime rates, which had soared in the 1980s and 1990s. And the percent of American households with children, which fell steadily from 1950 to 1980 before plateauing as the Boomers embraced family life, is now tumbling.

Household demand is shifting, and it’s shifting toward denser, more walkable environments. In the past decade, city centers have increased their share of new housing permits — a trend that accelerated over the past five years, according to a survey conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The housing bust, which has been far worse in distant exurbs than in city centers, has contributed to the boost in the relative stature of urban centers. Indeed, the bust may itself be a sign of the mismatch in housing demand and housing supply. Builders put up tens of thousands of exurban single-family homes, only to go belly up as buyers failed to materialize.

The dramatic decline in vehicle miles traveled and vehicle sales precipitated by high gas prices and then recession also reflects the weakened state of demand for an auto-centric lifestyle. And perhaps most interestingly, suburban areas are increasingly adopting the development patterns of city centers — grids, mixed-use developments, transit friendliness, and density — to remain desirable and functional for a new generation

Today’s working population was born and raised in the suburbs. They know the territory and they’re increasingly looking for something else for themselves and their families.

But lagging behind these trends is government policy. The distribution of transportation funding continues to bear the imprint of an earlier generation’s priorities. The tilt toward highways that emerged over half a century ago continues to guide federal spending. Even as demand patterns began shifting in the past decade, federal officials in thrall to Reaganism sought to shrink funding for transit and rail. This despite unstable gasoline prices and the looming threat of climate change.

Our second and last Boomer president signed the latest version of the nation’s transportation spending guidelines into law in 2005. That law expires this year. As we look to craft replacement legislation, we should recognize that it’s long past time to close the book on the policies of previous generations. Just because our parents and grandparents saw fit to spend massively on highway construction doesn’t mean we must. The Boomers had their chance at the helm. It’s time to show that we learned something from their mistakes.