The death of driving doesn’t mean the end of the suburbs. A splashy new report out on driving patterns suggests that the recession isn’t the only reason Americans have stopped driving. By controlling for unemployment across areas, the US Public Interest Research Group reached some interesting conclusions. WaPo:
There is a shift away from driving,” said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst at PIRG. “The cities in this report are home to most of America’s population and are engines of the economy. Policy leaders need to wake up and realize the driving boom is over. Instead of expanding new highways, our government leaders should focus on investing in public transit and biking for the future.”The PIRG report debunks the belief that recent declines in driving should be blamed primarily on the recession, with data that show the cities with the biggest drop in driving suffered no greater unemployment peaks than those cities where driving declined the least.
Most responses to this report so far have emphasized the need for smart new urban transit and housing policy. Matthew Yglesias, for example, argued for shifting money away from highways to urban transit systems and reducing obstacles to “multi-family apartments.” The assumption here is that the decline in driving is mostly about people moving into cities, and so studies like this reinforce the need to think about urban policy.But, in fact, new technology means that people don’t necessarily need to move to cities to reduce their dependence on cars. With telecommuting’s popularity on the rise, families can live out in suburban or even rural areas and work “in” urban ones, while boutique online shopping can supply you with everything from clothes to meals without a trip to the mall or the supermarket. Technology is enabling more and more Americans to spend more time with their families and in their communities, instead of in cars. Given that commuting is one of the biggest killers of social capital, declining driving mixed with increasing teleworking means that we are finally finding a way around one of the 20th centuries worst socio-economic rituals.But it doesn’t follow from this that people should live in the suburbs, nor does it mean they should live in cities. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and we’re agnostic as to where Americas choose to make their nests. The important thing is spending more time together with those you care about and building communities, be that in the country or in a city neighborhood. The takeaway from the PRIG is not that it’s time for politicians to become hyper-obsessed with urban policy. It’s that, thanks to computers and mobile devices, that kind of social capital density is more possible in more places than ever.