The signs of an American shift away from driving have been so well-reported as to amount to a new conventional wisdom -- declining vehicle miles traveled, increasing mass transit use, the trendiness of biking. Jeffrey Ball of The New Republic examines whether the leaders of this supposed cultural movement, the millennial generation, really are affirmatively choosing not to drive. Could it be instead that most of them are merely avoiding the cost of driving? During the last decade in which driving has plateaued, gas prices have risen and the economy has been weak.
Ball is compelling in marshalling evidence that, except for a relatively small number of educated professionals choosing to live car-free in big cities, the decline in driving reflects economic constraints, not personal preferences. Here are his two concluding paragraphs:
According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, “zero-vehicle households” encompass two Americas, one unusually rich and one unusually poor. Roughly 4% of those households earn more than $80,000 annually, a wealthy group concentrated in and around New York. Yet 70% of U.S. zero-vehicle households earn less than $30,000 per year. It’s a spread, in other words, much like many others in certain coastal American cities: Some well-off and often-child-free folks up top, some struggling folks at the bottom, and not many in between.
Things may well be changing in the land of the Mustang and the Explorer. But for now, most carless households in the U.S. remain what they’ve long been: carless by economic necessity rather than by choice.
Ball suggests higher up in the piece that such a conclusion is bad news for urbanists and environmentalists, who are hoping America’s love affair with the gas guzzler has ended. “[I]t may be ... an economically-driven, and thus ephemeral, shift,” Ball writes. He implies that millennials will start driving more as they move up the income ladder.
While his basic analysis is strong, it could lead to a different conclusion, one much more encouraging to environmentalists.