End of 'driving boom' spurs talk of reshaping state transportation plans

Stefanie Trop decided to live in Butchers Hill, a 7-minute walk from the Johns Hopkins medical campus, because all her friends live and work in the city and she didn't want to drive to school.

"It's not always the most pleasant walk; it's not very scenic and you can't pick any route you want to," she said. "But it's quick and easy."

Trop is one of a growing number of young professionals and other commuters in Maryland and around the country who are spending less time behind the wheel, according to a study released Thursday by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

The trend, which began before the recent recession, suggests a lifestyle change among younger Americans that state officials should factor into future transportation policy, said Joanna Guy, program associate with Maryland PIRG Foundation.

Gas prices, demographic shifts, changes in technology and other factors all contributed to the decline in driving, the study said. Teenage Americans are less likely to get their driver's licenses, young adults are flocking to urban centers, and more people are working from home. Baby boomers also are retiring, putting decades of commuting behind them.

"Given these trends, we need to press the reset button on our transportation policy," Guy said. "Just because past transportation investments overwhelmingly went to highway construction doesn't mean that continues to be the right choice for Maryland's future."

The "driving boom is over," she said, suggesting state spending be focused "on alternatives such as public transit and biking — which people increasingly use to get around."

State leaders, who will release a new, six-year transportation plan next week, say changing demographics and travel trends are considered when deciding policy, and that the state already is working to bolster mass transit options in population centers.

Between 2005 and 2011, miles driven per person in the state fell 4.1 percent to 9,646, the PIRG study found. Per capita driving mileage also declined in 45 other states, including Virginia, which saw a 7 percent decrease, and Washington, which saw a 14.4 percent decrease.

The State Highway Administration reports similar trends. Travel on the state's roads and highways has stalled in recent years after decades of growth following World War II.

Between 1980 and 2007, overall vehicle miles on state roads jumped from 28.5 billion miles traveled to 56.8 billion miles traveled, administration officials said. In 2008, that number dropped for the first time in decades, to 56.1 billion. It has fluctuated since, standing at 56.4 billion miles in 2012.

The leveling off of driving miles on the state's roadways occurred even as the state's population grew. Maryland added nearly 100,000 residents between 2010 and 2012, according to U.S. census estimates.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a gas tax increase pushed by Gov. Martin O'Malley that will provide hundreds of millions of dollars a year for transportation projects. The state's six-year plan, to be released Tuesday, is expected to include a mix of projects, from the creation of an east-west Red Line in Baltimore's metro system to substantial repairs to aging bridges and highways.

During the fight over the gas tax, O'Malley said the new funding stream will allow the state to "build a 21st-century transportation network." Senate Republicans, who unanimously voted against it, criticized the plan as a statewide tax to pay for mass transit that will serve a small percentage of residents.

"There has to be a happy medium. We have to take care of the roads we have," said Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and chair of the House transportation subcommittee. "But I'm a big fan of 'If you build it, they will ride it.'"

Malone pointed to the recent expansion of the MARC train station in Halethorpe, in his district, as a perfect example.

"You won't believe how many people are moving into our district, are buying houses, for one reason and one reason only: They ride the Halethorpe MARC train," he said.

Still, given the backlog of past-due highway projects, an across-the-board shift from driving toward public transit, biking and walkability remains a long way away, some said.

"People may not be driving as far, but they're still out there on the roads," said Sen. James "Ed" DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs the Senate's transportation budget subcommittee. "I don't think the emphasis is as much going to be on the mass transit side, when it's so expensive, because we have to fix the roadways."

A spokeswoman for O'Malley referred questions to James T. Smith Jr., the state's transportation secretary, who could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, said roads remain an important component to any state's transportation infrastructure. But declining or stalled travel on state roads, even as the state's population continues to grow, is "unprecedented" historically, he said, and should be a wake-up call for planners.

The trend is too pronounced to be caused simply by the economy, even if the economy is a factor, Puentes said. Unlike driving declines during the 1970s oil crisis, the current declines have been more prolonged and correlate less with the recession, he said. Similar drops occurring in Europe, Canada and developed parts of Asia also indicate that the trend may be here to stay.

"This is definitely real and it's definitely happening, and that's what's new," he said. "This isn't a blip like we saw in the 1970s or other points, where there was a little dip and then we went back to where we were."

Some big cities already are addressing the trend, Puentes said, citing Washington's expanding bike-share programs and Baltimore's circulator bus routes. But states are behind the curve, he said.

"The drops in driving are dramatic, they're unprecedented, yet we still model our transportation investments on older trends, extrapolating them out without any understanding that things are changing fundamentally," Puentes said.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which analyzes transportation issues on behalf of elected officials in the major jurisdictions that make up the greater Baltimore region, has noticed the shift away from driving among younger people, said Todd Lang, the group's transportation planning director.

Still, driving remains the state's dominant mode of transportation by a huge margin, he said.

A state study shows that the percentage of commuters who drive to work alone slipped to 73.3 percent in 2011 from 75.2 percent in 2003. Over the same period, there were slight increases in those who work from home (3.1 to 4.1 percent); who walk (2 to 2.3 percent); and who bike (0.2 to 0.3 percent).

Hiroyuki Iseki, an assistant professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, College Park's National Center for Smart Growth, said those numbers may be low but reflect potential.

"As we provide the alternative modes of travel to driving, then more people are inclined to live in particular areas. They seek the public transit service, they seek the bicycle access," Iseki said.



By the numbers

9,646: Per-capita vehicle miles in Maryland in 2011

4.1: Percent decrease in vehicle miles per capita, 2007 to 2011

15: Average percent increase in vehicle miles every five years, 1980 to 2005

0.7: Percent decline in vehicle miles, 2005 to 2010

73.3: Percent of commuters who drove to work alone in 2011

75.2: Percent of commuters who drove to work alone in 2003

9.2: Percent of commuiters who rode public transit in 2011

8.1: Percent of commuters who rode public transit in 2003

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