Seattle Freeway Park Inside Fountain Crashing Sounds
Freeway Park, photo by Ken McCown

Nate Silver, who John previously mentioned here, has a wonderful article in Esquire about the decline in driving across America. A brief excerpt:

In January, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, Americans drove a collective 222 billion miles. That’s a lot of time spent behind the wheel — enough to make roughly eight hundred round-trips to Mars. It translates to about 727 miles traveled for every man, woman, and child in the country. But that figure was down about 4 percent from January 2008, when Americans averaged 757 miles of car travel per person. And this was no aberration: January 2009 was the fifteenth consecutive month in which the average American drove less than he had a year earlier.

It’s a good piece and there’s a good discussion at Nate Silver’s website Five Thirty Eight. This decline is caused in part by the rise of the cost of driving (and falling real incomes), and in part by increased urbanization and better access to transit. It’s a bit depressing to think that transit agencies could cut service just when America’s car and oil dependencies are starting to ebb.

I think it’s worth considering the 28% percent fewer (according to WSDOT) car trips that would be taken with a surface option to replace to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Would those vehicle miles traveled just disappear anyway? Looks like it, probably don’t need the highway then.

26 Replies to “Nate Silver: The End of Car Culture”

  1. Why even the Gray Lady thinks we are on to something!

    A New York Times article this week described efforts in Vauban, Germany, a suburb of Freiburg, to go “car free.” The story mentioned attempts in some American communities to achieve something similar. While walkable communities have become common all over the United States in the last 15 years, going car-free is another challenge altogether. Is this a realistic goal in a car culture like ours? We asked some urban planners, developers and other experts to comment.

    Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism
    D.J. Waldie, author of “Holy Land”
    Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture
    Christopher B. Leinberger, real estate developer and author
    J.H. Crawford, author of “Carfree Cities”
    Marc Schlossberg, professor of public policy

  2. Many residential, commercial, and industrial areas lack sidewalk. Especially in winter, it is very dangerous to walk on the road with children.
    To reach transit stops, the cities have to put in sidewalks. For those who may oppose putting in sidewalks, remember that you are using city property for your extended landscaping. It is owned by the city, and they should be putting in sidewalks on city property now so we can get to the transit stop by walking there.

    1. Sure, but that’s really not the problem. The problem is lack of density – when there are more than half a dozen people asking for a sidewalk, it happens.

      1. Uh yeah, so what about those north Seattle neighborhoods that joined the city basically to get sidewalks? Still waiting…

        Ben, you’re terribly provincial if you think that “half a dozen people” is all it takes. There are apartment and townhome blocks in Northgate and Lake City that lack sidewalks on every side. Hell, there are apartment blocks on NE 5th in Northgate that have sidewalks only 5th itself. Not that those neighborhoods are as dense as your home (but not your work, natch, which, oh snap, has sidewalks, too) but these aren’t SF neighborhoods. What they are, however, in contrast to your home and work again, is poorer than the Seattle median.

      2. What they are, however, in contrast to your home and work again, is poorer than the Seattle median.

        Maybe it’s different in Seattle but Kirkland for sure and I think Bellevue and Redmond assess the property owner for sidewalks. It’s been a battle on the eastside for some home owners to get the city to agree to postponing the sidewalk construction until that person’s 80′ stretch of sidewalk actually connected something rather than being an isolated island of concrete miles from the next nearest sidewalk.

      3. Except that prior to very recently it didn’t apply to many of the “four-top” projects we’ve seen sprouting like weeds (single-family teardown, four townhomes on same site). Outside the urban village areas the rules weren’t the same.

      4. My understanding was not that the north Seattle neighborhoods joined the city to get sidewalks, but that they chose not to get them at that time because it would have been an extra tax assessment or something. But I could be wrong. It was before I was born. I grew up on one of those semi-sidewalkless streets — they put a black-top path in on part of it while I was a kid, but never a true sidewalk. Still doesn’t have one, even though it’s an arterial. If nothing else, the arterials ought to have sidewalks!

    2. It’s also worth noting that Tokyo is walkable and has far fewer sidewalks

      1. So how does that work? Lower speed limits? Fewer cars? If it’s just the latter, that’s a matter of altering our entire car culture. If little things like the former can help then there’s a lot we could learn from the details.

        I do know some places in Seattle that I would consider walkable that don’t have sidewalks, like where my Aunt used to live in Wedgewood. No sidewalks on any of those residential streets, but all the traffic was minimal and local and it was only a few blocks walk down to 35th to retail, bus stops, etc. But 35th itself has sidewalks, of course and I can’t imagine that area being safe for walking without them.

      2. Lower speed limits, fewer cars. Also cars that don’t just plow through and actually pay attention to pedestrians.

      3. “Also cars that don’t just plow through and actually pay attention to pedestrians.”

        That would be awesome. Only I don’t want to be the Pedestrian if there’s any sort of learning curve involved!

      4. Streets area also much narrower and much more discontinuous. Not quite to the level of a European city but there isn’t an integrated grid. I can hear the “put the street on a diet instead of building sidewalks” but building sidewalks would be the easiest way to put them on a diet in the areas that I mentioned.

  3. Wouldn’t it be nice if this would be true? But without further study, I wouldn’t buy it, these are just assumptions. The real reason may be that business is down and therefore people take less trips including (as already mentioned in a prior comment) rising unemployment and therefore people are not going to work or only work on four days rather than five.

    1. The decline has been going on a lot longer than the recession… Since 2005. The recession started at the earliest in Q1 2008 or Q4 2007

  4. Though 15 consecutive months of declining averages of miles driven is encouraging, one question I have: “since many kids are regularly driven to a school outside their neighborhoods (which as any parent knows leads to chauffering service to classmate birthday parties, sporting events etc. scattered all over town) is our next generation of drivers likely to be more reliant due to pre-conditioning?

    Despite all our attempts at localizing services and resources through urban village plans and transit oriented development, with so many students used to driving past their local school to attend one across town, are they more likely mature into a generation of drivers less likely to ever consider public transit over a private vehicle?

    1. If driving is prohibitively expensive in 15 or 20 years when today’s young kids are 20-something commuters, then they’ll take transit, regardless of how they grew up. I came from a little town where the only buses were schoolbuses and the greyhound that comes through once a day. I came here; took one look at 12 dollar parking at the UW and adapted.

      If you do want to hook kids on transit, the trick is to make transit easy and appealing to thirteen through fifteen year-olds. That’s the age where they’re old enough to ride safely alone, old enough to think getting rides from parents is lame, and too young to have a driver’s license.

      There are some requirements there. Safety for one, since that crime post below is still on my mind. If parents thing the buses or light rail are safe, they’ll let the kid ride instead of taking the time to drive them somewhere. And it would help if the transit system developed to a point where neighborhoods are more connected. Kids want to get from their neighborhood to their friend’s, not just from their neighborhood to downtown.

  5. Did you know that the state’s transportation planning is based on “an assumption that
    the number of vehicle miles traveled by individuals would not change substantially but the number of licensed drivers would increase.” So says WSDOT itself:

    Obviously, the underlying assumption of WSDOT’s modeling is incredibly unrealistic in light of the fact that VMTs were experiencing a downward trend BEFORE the increase in gas prices. And that assumption is the basis for the Washington Transportation Plan, and presumably that plan is the basis for the Legislature’s transportation budget.

    Less clear is whether WSDOT’s modeling of the Viaduct replacement options was also based on this faulty assumption.

    Care to investigate, STB?

    1. Wow, that is wrong in so many ways.

      First off they look at 25 years of data. Over the last 10 years of the data the trend has been consistently down to the point where it all but reverses the increase of the first 15 years. Somehow they conclude that this will reverse it’s self?

      Second, they mix minutes and miles by taking an increase commute time and assuming that equates to an increased commute distance. All they have to do is look at average speeds (data they have) to know that’s just flat out wrong.

      Finally, even if they were right in the SWAG that vehicle miles are going to increase State averages are meaningless when it comes to planning individual projects. Driving patterns are going to be wildly different between people living in Urban areas, the suburbs and rural areas. And western Washington might as well be a different State than eastern Washington when it comes to transportation planning.

  6. Hi, i came to seattle as a visitor last year (and wrote about it on my blog and two things struck me.

    1.The freeway north and south of city centre seemed to have the highest concentration of cars and trucks per inch that i had ever experienced.

    2.The busses have a great system of racks for adding a bike on the front.

    The two things seem to express contradictory visions of urban transport and although the statistics quoted in your main article offer some hope (though to be meaningful one has to factor out children – what are the hours for car OWNERS doing) for the future Seattle has a long way to go.

    I had visited the city two years prior and seen the construction taking place of a rail link from the airport – two years later still constructing.

    Is it finished yet?

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