Has the Automobile Era Jumped the Shark?

| by NRDC

By Kaid Benfield

Has the automobile era jumped the shark? The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute thinks the answer just might be ‘yes.’ In an unsigned Facebook post (authored perhaps by walkability guru Dan Burden?), the Institute says:

“I am ready to declare that America has hit peak VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled). We leveled out in 2001 in per capita growth, then in 2006 in actual growth, and there is now a slight decline overall. Not many of my modeling friends are ready to agree.... but what if we now measure community building success as reduced VMT...? What would be wrong with that? What would be wrong with measuring success with happiness instead?”


And in another Facebook post, the Institute features the University of onnecticut's Norman Garrick:

“On a recent Thursday in February, two disparate incidents in cities on opposite coasts may have signaled the end of the hundred-year ascendancy of automobiles in American life. In Portland, Oregon, the city council voted 5-0 to accept a new bike plan with the ambitious goal of increasing the percentage of people riding bikes from 6% (the highest of any big city in the country) to 25%. Three thousand miles away, on the opposite coast, the New York City Department of Transportation announced that they would make permanent the closing of Broadway to vehicle traffic . . .

“The tentative signs of the end to the dominance of cars in American culture are showing up in a number of ways. For example, the number of vehicles per person in America peaked in 2001. In fact, this decade is the first since the automobile era began in 1900 that the number of vehicles per person was smaller at the end than at the beginning of the decade. Likewise, the number of miles driven in America for each man, woman and child peaked in 2004 – both of these peaks occurred long before we even dreamed of the current economic downturn which seems to have just accelerated the trends.

“So what is going on? Well, for one there is a growing recognition by cities that we can no longer afford to expand or even simply maintain the massive highway infrastructure that they have accumulated over the last 60 years. And in fact, cities are learning that it is way cheaper to provide for bikers, walkers and transit users. The current bike infrastructure in Portland was built up over 15 years for $60 million. This puts in stark relief the fact that $60 million would buy us little more than one mile of freeway.

“Second, cities need to be cool to succeed and it is hard to be cool when you’re completely surrounded by the detritus of car culture – huge roads, parking lots and parking garages. Besides, younger citizens seem to be growing disillusioned with that car culture - a number of recent studies have found that young people in rich countries are buying cars at a much lower rate than their parents did at the same age . . .

“Just as the start of the automobile era created winners and losers, so too will a new post-automobile era. The question is whether or not we in the USA will wake up to this new reality in time to take advantage of the economic opportunities and needs of the new era -such as the need for American manufacturers of streetcars, for instance . . .”

Food for thought. Visit the Walkability and Livability Institute’s web site here, and go here for the full text of Garrick’s article.

Original post on NRDC Switchboard