Decisions on housing and transportation are inter-related, because in some places one automobile per adult is required while in other places there are alternative ways of getting around. And one of the big changes over the past 50 years is a decrease in the share of Americans living in places where there are alternatives, and an increase in the number of households with more than one motor vehicle. According to the 2010 Consumer Expenditure Survey, in fact, the average American household had 2.5 people and 1.9 vehicles. The large-scale entry of women into the out-of-home workforce explains some of this, but the average American household only had 1.3 workers in 2010. Considering only those households with a respondent age 35 to 44, the averages were 3.3 people, 1.3 children under age 18, 1.6 wage earners – and 2.0 vehicles. In much of the U.S., if you don’t have your own car you are homebound, or at least think you are. You cannot even go for a walk without getting in a car.
There are not many places in the United States where people can expect to live without any of their own motor vehicles for their entire lives. I don’t expect that to change. There is enormous demand, however, for places where young people and seniors can get around without having to drive, and where families with children can get by with just one vehicle. That demand far exceeds the supply. And that is something that will have to change, because younger generations will not be able to afford one car per adult. Not on their lower salaries. Not given their larger burdens. Not in a future when Americans are no longer the only people on the planet rich enough to compete for the world’s fossil fuels, with the most of cheaply accessed fossil fuels having already been used up.
Note: This post, like the others in this series, was initially written two years ago. Additional commentary follows in italics at the end.
A time when most families lived with just one motor vehicle is within the memory of most people my age and older. My mother, after having commuted by train to a job in Manhattan, left work after having children. Since my father drove the family car to work, anywhere we went on a weekday we went on foot. Since we lived just a few houses up the block from the older multi-family area
where my parents (and most grandparents) and grown up, in my grandparents’ two-family house, there were stores and services nearby, albeit not a large number. When Mom wanted something and didn’t want to get it, she sent me. And I also walked to school at PS 23, starting in kindergarten. All this was typical in the 1950s and 1960s.
And not just in older cities. Older suburbs and small towns were also built in the expectation that people would do something other than drive some of the time, with stores and services in walking distance. So we still had only one car when we moved to such a suburb, and walked to the local store when my dad was working. I still walked to school, and was commissioned to take the younger children of some of the neighbors with me. My in-laws also had just one car, in a different suburb. My wife would ride to the Dairy Barn on her bicycle to pick up supplies. She delivered newspapers by bicycle. The library where she later worked was also a bike ride away.
While my mother didn’t work, my grandmothers did. One walked to work at the school down the block. The other walked to work as a seamstress in Downtown Yonkers, and then carpooled with friends and relatives to the Fischer Body plant in North Tarrytown. Both walking to work and carpooling were much more common back then they are now. Moreover, while my father took the car to work, there was a time when he no longer had to do so. When we moved to the suburbs, he had moved near his job. Though no one thought to do it at the time, he could have ridden a bicycle to work in ten to 15 minutes without breaking a sweat. The commuter rail station with service to Grand Central, with its over-subscribed parking lot, was right next to the distribution center where my dad worked.
Setting out on my own after spending my adolescence during the energy crisis and gas lines of the 1970s, I saw no reason to upsize from the 1960s lifestyle. I sought to live without a car, and never expected to own more than one. But that lifestyle was going out of fashion.
As is the case today, jobs for college graduates were scarce in 1983. I was living with my grandparents in Yonkers, getting by in a part-time job receiving cans and bottles at a nearby supermarket, because the bottle bill re-establishing deposits on some bottles and cans had just passed, when I saw an ad for a job with the local Gannet newspaper. All the local papers in Westchester had merged, and the Herald-Statesman in Downtown Yonkers had just closed, so I set out for an interview with the company in White Plains. After taking two buses, one of which required a 30-minute wait, I arrived at the bus stop closest the Gannett campus off I-287. It was a long, long walk up the driveway to the building. I showed up one hour late after what would have been a three-hour commute, and quickly agreed with the person who would have interviewed me that we had nothing to talk about.
I just checked Google Maps, and Westchester’s Gannett Newspapers are still located in an isolated corporate park location at 1 Gannett Drive. But today most of the corporations for whom those corporate parks were built have left, and many of them are vacant.
Note: that is a national trend, by the way, with big implications for suburban tax bases. And there is no going back.
So when I got my first non-paper hat job as an economic analyst, I moved in with some friends over the border in an apartment in the Bronx, and after I got married we moved to my wife’s point of origin in Brooklyn, where we still live today. We got around almost exclusively by walking, and on the subway. That was a place that allowed the kind of cheap-as-possible car-free life we were seeking.
Back then, the subway was in ruins. There was generally no air conditioning, the cars and stations were dirty and vandalized, and so many trains failed to begin or complete their run that crush-loading was a near everyday occurrence, despite low ridership. We often had to let an F train go by at Prospect Park 15th Street because it was so crowded there was no way to get on. And then had to allow three A trains go by, waiting for the C, because the A trains were crush-loaded as well. Excess commute times of a half hour or more were a weekly occurrence, as we were forced to stand and sweat packed in between stations. At the New York City Transit Authority, where I worked for two years in the mid-1980s, one acceptable excuse for being late to work was being delayed because you took mass transit, which would be checked against the incident reports. My pass allowed free subway rides, but I frequently walked the three miles two and from Downtown Brooklyn.
The transit system had been wrecked because in the 1960s and early 1970s the New York City government was controlled by generations who were cashing in and moving out, to the suburbs and to Florida. They loaded the transit system with debt for short-term benefits, and passed large retroactive pension enhancements. Soon, more and more money was going to past debts and retirement benefits, and fares were increased while service and maintenance were cut in a downward spiral. When the MTA had so much debt it could no longer borrow, the capital plan – including ongoing normal replacement – shut down. It was several years before the system’s deterioration reached the point of near collapse. (It should be noted that the contribution of pension deals to the collapse of New York City services in the 1970s is well covered in the book While America Aged).
Despite the hassles, living without a car until age 30 translated directly into snowballing savings for us. We paid off our student loads. We saved for a large downpayment. We saved enough so that when we eventually bought a car, we paid cash. Having a large downpayment, and paying cash rather than borrowing for motor vehicles (and having one rather than two), has meant $ten of thousands in additional interest saved over time. Had we immediately purchased one motor vehicle each, paying interest on both, and continued to replace them with other motor vehicles also funded by debt, our financial situation would be very different today.
And yet that is exactly the choice the most Americans of our generation and those somewhat older have made – a one car per adult lifestyle with two people working, and most of the added earnings from the second worker going to the cost of the extra car, the cost of child care, and the cost of purchased rather than home cooked food. Or, rather, that is the choice that was made for them, because most jobs were being created in auto-access-only areas like that Gannett location, and most new subdivisions built in the 1980s and after have been inaccessible except by driving. I was in City Planning graduate school at Rutgers during the mid-1980s. There was a concern about affordable housing at the time, and one of the ideas was to reduce unneeded government-mandated costs in new subdivisions. Eliminating sidewalks, for example. That tells you what the thinking was at the time.
It wasn’t just the transportation needs of adults I considered when deciding where and how to live, but also the needs of children. Most purchasers of new housing are established working age adults, generally those who are married, often those with children. And the suburbs have been built almost exclusively for their needs. Already married, with friends established, and very busy, people that age don’t have a need or time for the kind of random sociability with a larger circle of acquaintances that an urban community, with time spent in public places outside the home and workplace, encourages. But that is not the case for children, single young adults, older empty nesters and the retired. No wonder so many young single adults are so desperate to cluster in places such as some of the neighborhoods in New York City. Where and how would they meet new people otherwise? The parking lot of the 7/11?
I wanted to live in a place where the children would be able to travel on their own to the corner store, to school, and to meet up with friends. Meanwhile, most American children have been raised in a controlling – and parentally burdensome – environment of arranged play dates and adult-organized activities. Whereas most children walked to school 50 years ago, virtually none do so today, due to both the location of homes and schools and the fear of crime.
Perhaps the trend can be dated to the Ethan Patz tragedy 33 years ago. My brother, who lives a typical U.S. life in a newer Sunbelt metro area, showed me how close his children’s schools are to his home. No one walks or rides a bike, though they easily could. If everyone were doing it, he said, he would gladly have them walk or bike to school, but if his kids were the only ones on the street, they could be a target. I can’t disagree with that. So they drive the kids to and pick them up from three different schools and after school activities, trying to coordinate carpools with other parents, while also driving to two jobs, shopping and everything else. Life might get a little easier soon, when their oldest son can drive, but then they will somehow have to come up with the money to keep a third car on the road.
Most Americans have become trapped in an expensive, one car per adult lifestyle. They see no alternative. And that’s why Americans get so upset, feel so much economic stress, and get so angry at politicians (a feeling that most politicians have chosen to exploit) every time the price of gasoline goes up. But it isn’t just gasoline.
In 2010, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, about 15.0% of the total consumer spending by the average American household was on motor vehicles. Since gas prices were low that year, just 4.4% of total spending was on gasoline and motor oil, with 5.4% spent on motor vehicle purchases (net of money received in used car sales) and 5.1% in other vehicle expenses, such as insurance, maintenance and finance charges. Since two thirds of those motor vehicle costs are fixed, cutting down on driving to save gas doesn’t really save that much. Most of the cost is determined by the number of motor vehicles each household has. That’s why it is never made sense to convince people to “leave their cars at home” and carpool or take transit, except perhaps to Manhattan. Once one has that motor vehicle, or that second motor vehicle, they have already paid two-thirds of its cost, so they might as well drive.
Gas prices have increased from the level of 2010, but other costs are rising as well. Most middle class, working class Americans, and even poor Americans, drive. But they rely on the used car market for their vehicles, since they can’t afford new ones. Which means they rely on the conspicuous consumption of more affluent Americans who always want newer cars, and purchase them and trade them in after three to five years. Today, because far fewer new cars were bought a few years ago, and because the affluent are keeping their vehicles longer, far fewer cars are being traded in, and there is a shortage of used cars. As a result the cost of the used cars most Americans rely on is soaring. In fact, according to Edmunds.com, the value of our 15 year-old Saturn Wagon, with a manual transmission, no air conditioning, and 100,000 miles on it has, actually gone up in the last couple of years.
So much for the past. What is happening now? What choices will my children and their peers have in a few years, when they are trying to go out on their own?
The next generation of young adults, in increasing numbers, is trying to escape from being trapped in the one car per adult lifestyle, either because they do not want it, or because they cannot afford it. For a while they were aided by the revival of mass transit in places like New York, and by the creation of the internet. The internet has allowed entertainment, shopping, and even a rising share of work to take place in the “electronic cottage” at home, in effect reviving the pre-industrial pattern of locally-based work for some people in some places. Here in New York, with more adults spending the workday close to home, there has been a revival of mid-weekday activity in local businesses in or near some residential neighborhoods, those where young adults concentrate.
Just as a rising share of young adults are reaching the same conclusions about their future mobility that I did 30 years ago, however, older generations and circumstances are conspiring to make replicating my choices more difficult.
First, there are not enough economically and socially viable walkable neighborhoods with transit access to meet the surging demand. While new light rail systems have been added in some cities, pedestrian and transit accessible locations have become very expensive, offsetting the transportation cost advantage of living there. Land near transit stations, according to one publication I quoted some time back, has become the “new beachfront property” – scarce, expensive, and perhaps in the future increasingly exclusive.
It may become impossible for younger generations of college graduates to repeat our choices of 30 years ago and reap the same savings, because rents and housing prices in walking distance of subway, commuter rail and light rail stops will be too expensive. For the working class, in fact, the rising cost of inner city living was identified as an issue by the music group The Bus Boys 30 years ago.
Moreover, the response to young people buying fewer cars has been similar to the response to young people buying fewer houses – panic, propaganda and retributional public policies. There has been a wave of auto ads targeted to younger Americans trying to convince them that they have to drive to become real adults. But as many industries do when the market turns against them, the auto-related industries are turning to the government to give them back the upper hand – regardless of what younger Americans want or can afford.
First there was the bailout of the auto industry. Then there was cash for clunkers. Both were Democratic Party proposals at the federal level. Today, the Republicans in Congress have proposed essentially de-funding mass transit to increase spending on roads, eliminating the state and local choice model put into place by Republican Ronald Reagan in order to diminish federal power. As the crunch continues, I would not be surprised if there are calls to use taxpayers dollars – or more likely debt – to further subsidize travel by automobile.
While these policies are recent, at the state and local level Republican and Democratic politicians in older generations have been working to wreck mass transit for years. As in New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s, many transit agencies have been loaded with debt so money could be diverted elsewhere. And pensions have been retroactively enhanced to curry favor with public employee unions, and underfunded. Every transit agency is facing a pension-driven financial crisis that is as bad or worse than New York’s MTA. In Pittsburgh, for example, there is a proposal to cut transit service by 40 percent. And the “pro-transit” proposal by Generation Greed politicians in response to soaring pension costs? Allowing transit agencies to use “capital” funding for current operations. The same policy that led to the collapse of New York’s transit system in the 1970s as older buses, cars and other systems wore out and could not be replaced.
Of course, excess debt and retroactive pension deals were once again done at New York’s MTA from 1995 to the present. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The New York State Legislature and Governors, now controlling the transit system, have done the same thing over again, but I do not believe they are insane. They are just cashing in and moving out statewide, and seeking to leave scorched earth when they pass on, like all politicians of their generation all over the country. This time more of the MTA’s problem has been caused by debt than by pensions, but only because the TWU failed to get the pensions changed to retirement at age 50 after just 20 years of work, instead of 25/55. Even though the legislature passed it more than once, and the transit workers went on strike to get it. But 20/50 could happen at any time, even without anyone knowing, and then become irrevocable regardless of the consequences. “We serve the 99 percent” my ass.
The bottom line is that younger generations cannot afford the auto-dependent lifestyle of their predecessors. But through their control of the federal, state and local governments, their predecessors have ensured that their alternatives will be limited. I expect rail transit systems will continue to run, because they are inherently reliable and can take quite of bit of abuse before they utterly collapse. But I would not be surprised if many of the conditions on the New York City subway in the 1970s were to come back, with increasingly unpleasant and unreliable travel and some lines out of action due to deterioration for years at a time. And there won’t be nearly the expansion that would be required for the demand for transit accessible neighborhoods to be met.
As for bus systems, here and elsewhere, the cutbacks may be expected to be so severe that buses an no longer be considered a transportation mode you can organize your life around. They barely work as it is, stopping at every light and then at bus stops, and stuck in traffic in between. Unless there is a dedicated busway, which could provide rail-quality speed and reliability, it is best to ignore buses altogether.
So what can the next generation do?
One alternative is to turn to a type of transportation I didn’t think of 30 years ago and only started using heavily a few years ago – the bicycle.
Sure I had a Schwinn Stingray, and used it to go all over when I was a child. But my bicycle riding did not survive the transition to a ten-speed, which like many things purchased at Sears in the 1970s did not work very well. So I walked a mile to middle school, and two miles for the last two years of high school. I had a part time and summer job as a busboy, dishwasher and cook at a restaurant located 1 ¼ miles away. On weekends and in summer I often walked that distance twice round trip, for lunch rush and the evening shift. During summers home from college I also walked two miles each way to a job as an all night gas station attendant, and three miles each was to a job as a hotel bellman. All those trips would have been quick and easy on a bicycle, but I never thought to get one. It just wasn’t done.
A bicycle moves at three to four times the speed of a pedestrian, meaning that a ride three to four times as far is the equivalent of walking distance. That means places within two miles of the subway are viable locations for subway riders, rather than just one-half mile. Places I didn’t consider living 30 years ago would have been options had I known then what I know now. There was no way I wanted to take a slow, infrequent, unreliable bus to the subway, so there was know way I was willing to consider living in a place like Dyker Heights, Marine Park, or most of Queens.
My boss at the time pitched Forest Hills as place to settle down. I found there were some rowhouses west of the Gardens that we could afford, and some detached houses down near Metropolitan Avenue for about the same price. The rowhouses near Queens Boulevard were walking distance from the train but not Forest Park, while the detached houses near Metropolitan Avenue were near the park but not the train. Forget it – it had to be a place near the park AND the train. But it would have been a quick bicycle ride to anything if there were a place to lock the bike.
The bicycle could have an even bigger impact in the suburbs and in smaller metro areas. There, the typical bus transit system was never good enough to stake one’s lifestyle on, and is getting worse all the time. But one can get virtually anywhere within the maximum bicycle commute of approximately ten miles. For example, virtually the entire City of Chicago is within ten miles of the loop. In cities such as Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Tulsa, ten miles gets you just about anywhere.
Traveling under one’s own power in all kinds of weather requires more effort and fortitude than having a motor do the work. On the other hand, traveling under one’s own power builds the capacity for effort and fortitude, whereas the typical low exertion U.S. lifestyle does the reverse. There is no way responsible adults can find the time to get exercise for the sake of exercise, and working by the sweat of one’s brow is now a thing of the past in developed economies. Traveling by bicycle brings back exercise in the normal course of events.
Some people may think I’m nuts riding to work, but as I pedal along in the dark cold of a winter morning I see young men and women heading out jogging, running in a circle in an attempt to maintain their health and figure. They will then return home, shower, and THEN get to work some other way. Before we had children, I used to go jogging too, in the afternoon, though it bored me and I hated it. Finding the time with babies and toddlers at home? No way. Had I biked to work in those years, I might weigh 40 lbs less today.
For those who want to go in the other direction, there are businesses working to provide a lifestyle where one never walks a single step, inside or outside. Just sit the entire time you aren’t lying down, and have machines move you around. The next logical step: a powered Lazy Boy recliner with an included feeding tube and remote control, one that can lift you into bed, so one never has to move a muscle. How we are going to come up with the energy for all of this is something that doesn’t seem to be considered. Nor is the health care impact of never using a single muscle to move considered. In the end, the easy life is killing us.
One problem with the bicycle is that although it uses far less road and parking space than a motor vehicle, it does not use nothing. Motor vehicles, like most aspects of the American lifestyle of the past 30 years, require so much in resources that those who use them constantly feel needy, angry and unwilling to share.
You see this in Brooklyn, where a large segment of the Democratic political class, particularly those in older generations, is hostile to bicycles and people who ride them, as was evidenced by the controversy over the Prospect Park West bike lane. And you see it nationally, where the Republican Party is completely united in opposition to the tiny share of federal transportation funding used for bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
Thus affluent “egalitarian” Democrats are unwilling to share even a small share of a scarce resource – road space – with less well off people who are using what to the political class is an inferior form of transit for inferior people. “Small government” “self-reliance” Republicans are unwilling to encourage a low-cost form of transit that people provide for themselves, relying on themselves for their own health and mobility. It’s bunk.
Another problem cyclists face is the possibility of getting killed or maimed by motor vehicles. Although motor vehicles have their own exclusive rights of way where pedestrians and cyclist are not allowed – the limited access highways — drivers generally oppose creating similar exclusive rights of way where cyclists are less likely to be harmed. The roads can be expected to become more dangerous as aging drivers, stuck in isolated development patterns, face a choice of ever more difficult driving or becoming homebound. Even as public resources become ever more scarce, expect growing demands for less well off people in younger generations to provide them with the equivalent of taxi service, at the expense of more and more transit cuts in urban areas. But cyclists become safer the more people ride bicycles. If everyone did it, the risks would be much diminished.
As I’ve noted previously, another form of transportation that would be effective and affordable if more people did it is dynamic carpooling. Traditional carpooling became less common when the share of workers starting and ending shifts at the same time (with a factory whistle) went down, and the number of linked trips – a stop to pick up children at daycare for example – went up.
In a dynamic carpooling system, a separate carpool is formed for every trip, via social media and other information technology. Most attempts have resembled a swap meet, with everyone picking up passengers for nothing and leaving their own cars home some of the time. To be really effective, however, the passengers would have to pay the drivers the equivalent of a transit fare, not have a car (or a second car) to begin with, and save on vehicle financing, maintenance and insurance as well as gasoline.
Dynamic carpooling, as I would suggest it, would have some households using their only car as a second source of untaxed income. Private mass transit, small private vans and buses, are another step in that direction. Their advocates point to their nimbleness and market responsiveness. But let’s face it, the main reason they work without subsidy in places like Brooklyn is the drivers are not richer than the passengers, unlike the subway where the workers get one-plus year in retirement for each year worked. Since younger generations have been made poorer, they will not be able to afford to purchase services from those who are richer. Only from others among the disadvantaged like themselves. Expect pushback from those seeking to trap the disadvantaged in monopoly situations where they have the power to take more at their expense.
In the absence of established transit, the next generation will have to work together – and fight against older generations seeking to use the power of government against them – to cut their cost of transportation. Taking bicycles, working at home, and swapping rides in dynamic carpooling clubs. The battle is going on right now. But total victory is not required. Instead, younger people need to locate exclusively in those places willing and able to accommodate them. As the other places watch their property values fall, and their labor force limited to those lacking the personal initiative to move on, perhaps their “take it or leave it” attitude toward other people’s futures would change.
Update: the recession, as conventionally measured, ended five years ago. Yet vehicle miles traveled per capita continues to fall. Some people have figured out the significance of this. Most have not. I wouldn’t be loading more debt on the New York State Thruway Authority, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the Port Authority and the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority on the assumption that traffic will continue to rise enough to pay the bonds back.
Meanwhile experiments with dynamic carpooling continue, as do attempts to stop both those experiments and bicycle programs such as Citibike. You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you?
The old Saturn Wagon finally died after 17 years, but I still have a child with two more years of school Upstate. Do I replace it, and continue to compete with my neighbors for free on-street parking when the car is back in Brooklyn, all while having nightmares about alternate side? Or not replace it, and continue to get ripped off by the high cost of car rental in New York?
High because unlike people’s private cars, shared cars are not stored on the street in Brooklyn (though they are in Hoboken).
I have until December to decide.