The New American Dream: Walking and Bicycling into the 21st Century

Deb HubsmithA new study from U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group shows that after decades of steady growth, U.S. driving rates have slowed, and even stalled – and that in the long term, Americans are unlikely to return to driving as much as they did before. The study finds that Millennials (people born between 1983 and 2000) drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001—a greater decline in driving than any other age group. Experts attribute this trend to a confluence of factors, including rising gas prices, the cost of car ownership, reduced employment during the recession, and that Millennials are more likely to want to live in urban and walkable neighborhoods and are more open to non-driving forms of transportation than older Americans.

The study predicted that driving rates will pick back up as Millennials enter child-bearing years, even though they do not expect rates to return to levels of previous generations. Instead, families will continue to seek alternatives to driving by choosing neighborhoods where they can walk and bicycle to school, to the park, and around the community. Safe Routes to School programs will play an integral role in the way cities and towns serve these families in the coming decades by ensuring that kids and families have safe, accessible streets for walking and bicycling.

Young people are more likely to want to live in urban areas or dense suburbs that revolve around a walkable town center with multi-modal transportation options. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, it’s now easier than ever to share cars and bikes, and to plot routes that combine bicycling and walking with public transportation. Unlike previous generations, young people don’t need – or want – a car to stay connected. Safe Routes to School assures young families that they can remain connected to their community and provide daily opportunities for physical activity for their children.

Municipalities are also fueling the shift toward less driving as they pursue smart growth strategies that favor walkable centers and expanded bicycle and public transit options. Why? Smart growth strategies save money. A recent study from Smart Growth America, “Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development” found that smart growth development saves a city an average of 38 percent for upfront costs such as new road construction, sewers, water lines, and other infrastructure. Smart growth strategies also save an average of 10 percent for ongoing costs and generate as much as 10 times more tax revenue than conventional suburban development.

The U.S. PIRG’s conclusion:  it’s time for America to “hit the ‘reset’ button on transportation policy—replacing the policy infrastructure of the Driving Boom years with a more efficient, flexible and nimble system that is better able to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.” We agree with this conclusion, and urge policy makers and advocates to bring this new data and demographic trends into public policy decisions about investments for transportation and land use.

It is an exciting time to be working with partners to grow the active transportation movement and to build safe, healthy communities where Americans want to live, work and go to school. We are optimistic that the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Transportation, former Charlotte Mayor Foxx, will continue to prioritize smart growth strategies for transportation and land use, increase mobility options, leverage existing infrastructure, and show leadership on walking, bicycling, and Safe Routes to School.  

Now is the time to lead the way toward creating healthy community designs in all communities throughout the U.S.!