The kids want Marin but not the car

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by Luiza, on Flickr

The media was abuzz last month with news that the country is driving less than we have since 1996 and a report find that this trend will likely continue for at least another 30 years. Simultaneously, reports of housing preference finds that Americans increasingly want walkable, bike-friendly places to live. Both trends are most pronounced in Millennial and Boomers, the two largest cohorts working their way through our demography.

While most of the country’s suburbs grapple with some seriously car-centered places that are rapidly losing value, Marin is a special case. Our network of walkable town centers is precisely what people are looking for. They provide independence the sprawl of other places can’t. Even our arterial roads (mostly) have sidewalks, an amenity other cities dream of.

But we do need reform to capture this market, or Marin risks losing its children.

The push against driving

For the last 8 years, travel patterns have been shifting dramatically in the United States.

Since 2005, vehicle miles traveled – how many miles Americans drive – has been in decline. According to USPIRG, Americans now drive about as much per capita as we did in 1995 and as much overall as we did in 2004, while Californians have returned to 2005 and 1995 levels, respectively. Nationally, 16 to 34-year-olds drove a whopping 23 percent less in 2009 than they did in 2001.

Taking its place have been bicycling and transit, the use of which has climbed to record levels. Bicycling rates are tough to measure, thanks to very low starting numbers, but at least in San Francisco it grew 71 percent from 2006-2011. Easier to measure is the growth in transit usage, which is up 12 percent since 2002 and is now at a level similar to the 1950s. Young people, meanwhile, are taking transit for 40 percent more miles than their age group was 8 years ago.

USPIRG thinks this trend will continue, as the number of teenagers and young adults with drivers’ licenses has declined significantly – to levels not seen since the 1970s – and shows no sign of abating. Consumer surveys show little interest in driving or cars among the young, with most viewing car ownership as a burden instead of a freedom. Instead, mobile devices have become symbols of freedom and status. Even AAA admits that any operation of these devices in a car, even by voice, is incredibly unsafe.

This shift in preference marks a significant difference of opinion from their parents’ generation, which saw cars as signs of adulthood, freedom, and status. However, even those Boomers are starting to drive less. As they retire, they’ll be able to cut the daily commute. And, over the next 20 years, more and more will age out of driving. This will further depress our VMT.

The push for walkability

Though many have gone through an urban phase before decamping to the suburbs, no modern generation has so embraced the city as the Millennials.

Across the country, this preference has shown up in price spikes around downtown cores, some of which have been in decline for decades. And it’s not just the big name cities, either. While Detroit, Washington, and New York get headlines, places like Kansas City, MO, and Charlotte, NC, are seeing their downtowns’ fortunes revive.

Driving the demand for city living is demand for high access by foot and bike to jobs, shops, and services. Though some love the bustle of the city, others just want the pleasant walk to the store, whether in a city or a suburb. Marin’s town cores offer the balance of city and suburb that is all too rare outside New England.

Yet the continued focus on drivability over biking, walking, and transit puts a damper on Marin’s ability to capitalize on this natural advantage. Rather than expand our town centers, we allow them to be islands of walkable living in a sea of pedestrian-unfriendly arterial roads. We value them, true, but we keep them in a box.

Instead of just preserving them, we ought to allow them to expand. Why should downtown Mill Valley be contained north of Sunnyside? Or downtown San Anselmo remain a 6-block strip along San Anselmo Avenue? Only Fairfax has expanded its downtown zone, replacing all its parking-heavy Highway Commercial zone with Downtown zoning.

Yet even within town cores, housing for singles – one bedrooms and studios – are strongly discouraged by a potent mix of parking minimums and density limits. Between town cores, the bicycling infrastructure needed for the most utilitarian trips – with cargo bikes or small children – is practically nonexistent.

Does this mean the end of the single-family detached home in Marin? Hardly. Though the more strident opponents of change in Marin claim any change means wholesale demolition of car-centric neighborhoods in Marinwood and Novato, there is still absolutely a place for them in the housing mix. Rather, what Marin needs is more diversity of transportation and housing options, not less, as has lately been the case.

If Marin wants to keep the residents that made the county a counter-culture mecca while attracting a new generation to a quieter alternative to San Francisco and Oakland, it will need to address this shifting reality. Eventually the Boomers will be unable to or unsafe to drive (asking them to purchase a self-driving car is simply outsourcing the problem), and the Millennials that should take their place will want better bike lanes and better transit options.

If we don’t adapt, Marin risks becoming an exclusive enclave for the rich and retired, hardly a fitting end to the hippies who put Marin on the map.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

3 Responses to The kids want Marin but not the car

  1. Stephen Nestel says:

    Have you considered the reason that young adults are driving less is due to their economic status and not preference. With huge college debt, a slack economy, people make choices based on need. Using the same logic of the story, recent immigrants of the Canal Area of San Rafael “prefer” to use bicycles. The is a difference between correlation and causality.

    • I have, and it’s a theory worth exploring. There are a number of factors, however, that the theory doesn’t yet explain. Young people have fewer drivers’ licenses, which points to a shift in preference rather than a shift in economic ability. The decline began before the recession rather than during it, again implying a shift in preference rather than economic need. VMT no longer tracks GDP or employment rate, another sign economics isn’t the only thing at play.

      It would be foolish to say this is entirely driven by preference, of course. Economics accelerated the trend, and likely justifies that preference for a number of people. Graduated drivers’ licenses also discourages driving among the youngest drivers, which may help explain the development of these preferences early on.

      For what it’s worth, car companies and car enthusiasts agree with this assessment and are doing what they can to get Millennials to buy cars again.

  2. Again, David is spot on in his analysis of trends. While some think it is “OK” to just jump in cars without a thought of the collective impact to environment and health, others have discovered that public transit, walking, and biking are much better alternatives when available. People are tired of long single car occupancy commutes for both low paying service jobs and high paying professional jobs.

    The current NIMBY attitude and actions of circling their wagons in Marin is very enlightening when you look at all the “recent” concerns Marinites have discovered that they use for excuses not to build in their neighborhoods. All of a sudden Marintes want to save the world, as long as it means no multi family housing in their neighborhoods.

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