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Since 2007, impossible things have been happening.  Traffic has been shrinking in America.  Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT are down to the same numbers as we had in 2001.  With increasing population, per capita miles traveled in traffic is down to 1995 levels.  The group ditching their cars has been the youngest generations.  Driving is no longer a standard rite of passage at 15.  As young Americans age, might they keep living the model of their carfree salad days?

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This is astonishing.  What did we do to get Americans to use their cars so much less?  Aren’t we still building roads? Weren’t highways and road bridges the shovel-ready projects that kept the construction industry afloat in 2009 and 2010?  Aren’t we still in thrall of the American love affair with the car?  Have all the whispered, urgent pleas of the new urbanists, conservationists, and smart growth advocates finally found an audience?  Surely this is the dawn of a new frontier in walking, biking and transit as the vanguard of millennials matures into a new kind of American.  One that doesnt need the car anymore, at last.

Just look at what its doing to congestion:

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(thicker lines=larger cities

Not so Fast.

There are two small problems with this story and one big one.

The first is employment.  Despite everything you hear about whippersnapper managers and age discrimination, 40- and 50- something workers are doing more and more work, while more and more teens and 20-somethings have less and less work.  This has been a trend since the late 1990s, but has gotten worse since the 2008 financial crisis.  Millenials you don’t see driving may also be the millennials you don’t see working.  This has implications for the notion of work in coming decades.  Every American since the agricultural boom of the 1600s has gone through the crucible of crap jobs in their teenage years.  Now, more teenagers than ever are sitting idle, sullenly wondering what went wrong, flitting between Playstation and Xbox***. Woe betides us if they find someone to blame. Let us hope they figure out a new notion of work and income. The old notion is not serving their needs.

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The second little problem is about gas prices.  The most regularly recurring cost of traffic operations is gas, and gas has not gotten cheaper since 2008 (aside from the recessionary trough, of course).  From the heady days of dollar gas in 1998, gas prices hit an all-time high in 2008.  This is when the Prius, Smart Car, transit and moving close to work became popular. SUVs almost disappeared from the highways.  Since then, the price has stayed above $3.00, skating along just under $4.00 in places.  This is the new normal. Gas has stayed this price since 2009, with Easter becoming the new panic season.  Many have gotten used to this new expenditure, and are back in their SUVs.  Millenials, on tight budgets, have not.  Many have ditched the car entirely.

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I am not sure they are ditching the car voluntarily, though.

The big problem I have is that conservationists and urbanists need to quit crowing about economic hardship as salvation.  Though widespread penury is sustainable from a carbon or environmental standpoint, it is not economically or socially sustainable.  No one’s having much fun.  People don’t want to be unemployed with tight budgets.  I haven’t seen that the urbanists have truly provided a prosperous alternative to traffic yet.  The reason the youth are driving less is that they have less money, not that they are embracing urbanist ideals.  The same thing happened during the 2008 oil price shock, and in the UK’s late 90s carbon reduction.  Behavior changed toward “conservation” because of recession, not because of a compelling vision that swept the old ways out.

Urbansists should not relish recession and high prices as the tools of a new frontier.  The public does not want sticks, it wants carrots.  I fear that 20-somethings want to get back in their cars and SUVs ASAP to get right back in traffic and congestion the very same week they get jobs.  Most of them would love to get jobs.  And most of America would love for there to be jobs for them.

The miraculous drop in VMT will be reversed as soon as happy days are here again.  Unless urbanists come up with something genuinely happier.  Don’t let sustainable times be the hard times.  Its just bad marketing

* Sources of data: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Census, Gas Buddy.

** I did not do a regression or correlation in this analysis.  I might do some more in-depth ANOVA if challenged

*** Not my joke.  Monstroso from the Venture Brothers.

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