Americans' driving habits are shifting

May 23, 2013

Read more in the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.

Last Friday’s train crash showed the need for more investment in mass transit in Connecticut. In addition, new data reveals that Americans’ driving habits are changing, especially among younger people. Transportation advocates say it’s time for planners and governments to change their priorities.

As bad as the traffic may be on your way to work, Abe Scarr has some news for you.

“The driving boom is over.”

Scarr is director of the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, or ConnPIRG. Their recent study shows that after decades of nearly uninterrupted growth in driving in America, the trend has stopped. Americans today aren’t driving any more miles than they did in 2004. The flatlining started around 2003, so ConnPIRG says it’s not just about the economic recession. It’s about the younger generation.

“They show clear preferences for walkable communities, for having opportunities to not use a car," Scarr says. 

In fact, people under 30 surveyed say they’d happily choose an internet connection or a smartphone over a car. For one thing, it’s easier for them to connect with their peers through technology, without moving an inch. So with that in mind, ConnPIRG says it’s time for transportation planners to think differently. To stop expanding roads and bridges and focus on public transit.

“The culture is changing. A question that we have is whether change is happening fast enough," says Steve Higashide, of the advocacy group the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. 

Higashide says Connecticut is spending more money on public transit than in the past – but that when it comes to roads and bridges, the state is too focused on adding lanes to them rather than maintaining what’s already there.  

“The state is still planning to spend 41 cents of every road and bridge dollar on expansion projects," Higashide says. 

That’s way more than neighboring states spend. 

A plan to widen I-84 in Waterbury between exits 23 and 25 will cost nearly half a billion dollars, or more than $150 million a mile. But Higashide says it’s based on studies done in the mid 1990s.  

“So you have these old traffic studies that basically assume people are going to just keep driving more and more infinitely into the future, and we are seeing that that is not the case.” 

Meanwhile, the poor condition of the state’s roads and bridges cost drivers hundreds of dollars per year. One estimate puts the annual cost per driver at more than $300.

“When you look at these megaprojects, they really eat up a huge part of the budget that could otherwise go to maintenance or other needs," Higashide says.

In Connecticut, the driving boom reversed a little more slowly than in some other states, starting around 2008. But public transit use is way up. The Hartford to New Britain busway and New Haven to Hartford high-speed rail line are two major public transit projects underway in the state – transportation advocates say they’re a step in the right direction, but that much more needs to be done.