The Public Space
May 08, 2013
the meaning of transit
by Ken Mayer
When we Baby Boomers were young adults, the car was a big deal. The auto, for the generation now in their 40s to their 60s, meant many things. Freedom, status, personal expression, privacy and social networking all come to mind, and yes, even transportation.
This was no accident. The automakers knew the wisdom of the old saw: “There is no such thing as stuff qua stuff.” For marketers, this meant that selling cars as merely a way to get around wasn’t sufficient. The automobile needed to be imbued with a lot more glamorous attributes like freedom, status, personal expression, well, you get the picture.
Meanwhile, they were also busy making sure the Baby Boomers would not be riding around on mass transit, at least not electric powered mass transit. As early as 1936, General Motors had established several front companies for the purpose of purchasing and dismantling America’s streetcar systems.
This isn’t to say we were duped by big business. The Baby Boomers and their parents went along. To this day, we are still more than a little willing to exalt the car – even to making sure that its storage and protection are the dominant features of our residential architecture.
Today’s young adults, the Millennial generation, show signs of seeing things differently. The first indication appeared when the Federal Highway Administration Vehicle-Miles Traveled Per Capita Peaked in 2004 and started going down.
A closer look at where the decline comes from reveals that Baby Boomers and Generation X had driven only moderately fewer miles, but Millennials drove significantly less than past generations their age. The National Household Travel Survey reported that between 2001 and 2009, the average number of vehicle-miles traveled by 16- to 34-year-olds decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita. That’s a 23 percent decrease.
One wonders what might be going on here. Could it be that young people today don’t see the car in the same way?
In a survey by KRC Research and Zipcar, respondents were asked how much they agreed with the statement, “With access to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, text messaging and online gaming, I sometimes choose to spend time with friends online instead of driving to see them.” The percentages of the age groups that said they strongly or somewhat agreed can be seen in the graph at the right.
This research suggests that some of the attributes the auto bestowed on Baby Boomers have been usurped by the Internet. I’m not suggesting that online interaction is a good substitute for face-to-face conversation, but it sure beats snail mail or passing notes in class.
In addition, a National Association for Realtors study asked respondents to rate the importance of having bus routes and rail lines within walking distance of their homes. The percentages of participants that answered “very important” for bus routes and rail lines averaged by age group can be seen in the graph at the right.
Apparently, the car is not nearly as important to the youth of today as it was in the 60s and 70s. I think this poses some real challenges for today’s urban planner and the notion of transit oriented development.
Planners who are in decision making capacities today are likely Baby Boomers. The populations that we are planning for probably don’t hold the car as dear as we do.
Moreover, these data suggest that we may need to think carefully about what the word “transit” means. It’s my hope that the sins and influences of the past can be forgotten in favor of a more balanced view.
Maybe we should use an old idea about public space to plan for transit. Environmental psychologists sometimes suggest an old trick in landscape architecture when deciding where sidewalks ought to be laid in large spaces like parks or campuses – don’t put in any sidewalks at all, just wait for paths to be worn. Then, pave the paths.
Seems to me we might be well served by assuming that all forms of transit will be used equally as people move from node to node and plan for adjusting that balance as we see what forms of transit gain favor.
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.