Questioning our car culture: “driving light” and the future of driving in Boston and America.
Given the high price of maintaining an automobile, the potentially negative environmental impacts, and the growing hassles of driving, isn’t it time we started questioning our car culture?
The Boston Globe recently published two op-ed pieces by regular contributors Paul McMorrow and Tom Keane on whether or not Boston can be less dependent on cars. See Can Boston be car-free? Click here for Paul McMorrow’s view; click here to read Tom Keane’s rebuttal.
You can have your car, and drive it too.
Should developers be able to respond to market demand for car-free (and potentially less expensive) urban housing? Evidence suggests that across the country there is a clear, long-term trend towards driving less or “driving light”— a new phrase popularized by Jackie Douglas, the executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, and mentioned in a recent Forbes article by Micheline Maynard, Consumers are ‘Driving Light’ by Choice and by Accident.
Massachusetts is leading the way when it comes to “driving light.” As Maynard and Douglas pointed out on RadioBoston, less than half of all trips in Boston are by car, compared to 84 percent for the rest of the country. Massachusetts, in particular metro-Boston, also has one of the lowest obesity rates in the country. Coincidence?
There are many factors behind this growing car-free trend, and not all of them are the lingering economic byproducts of the 2008 recession. Car ownership is down, especially among Millennials, the generation of young, technologically-savvy Americans born between 1982 and 2003. See the recent study by U.S. PIRG: “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future.”
Technology is changing our driving habits.
Younger Americans are using social media and other technologies to rethink their transportation choices, and the implications are fascinating for the rest of us. Online shopping, car sharing, and a host of new apps, from taxi services such as Uber and Hailo, to others that make it easier to plan trips using public transit, are catalysts for a car-free or “driving light” existence, as highlighted by U.S. PIRG’s “A New Way to Go: The Apps, Maps, and New Technologies that are Giving More Americans Freedom to Drive Less.” Besides, taking public or shared transit allows us to stay glued to our smartphones, something not usually allowed while driving.
The future is here. Are we ready for it? Stewing in a massive traffic jam is not time well spent during a daily commute. So it may make sense to opt for a faster, cheaper, cleaner, quieter, less stressful way to get around. We’re hoping the trend to make city centers more people- and bike-friendly is here to stay, and hopefully policy makers and developers will take notice. In Boston, anyway, they may have to, because it doesn’t seem physically possible to accommodate the projected numbers of travelers driving in cars—and parking them in our city.
Will Millennials opt for cars as more of them have kids? Tom Keane, in his op-ed piece believes that’s when the siren call of the minivan can be harder to resist. Will they leave the city in droves? Or will they clamor for more street-side parking and fewer bike lanes?
If you build it, they will come (and stick around)
Commuting on a bicycle
It’s doubtful that Millennials will abandon the city for the ‘burbs just yet. Once you experience the convenience and empowerment of living in a walkable city, it’s hard to opt for a more car-dependent lifestyle. Especially if cities continue to do more to improve their residents’ quality of life with more late-night trains and buses, smaller, more affordable housing, more bike lanes and other bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. Baby boomers and retirees, too, are discovering the joys of urban living.
Our story. Our Gen-X/early Boomer family made the move from the suburbs to the city with kids a few years ago, and we feel very fortunate we were able to make this lifestyle choice. The move enabled us to downsize from two cars to just one, and buy bikes—along with monthly T passes and Hubway bike share memberships—with the money we’re saving on a second car’s gas, insurance, car payments, and maintenance. We could easily add a car-share membership to the mix if we were so inclined—and we just may soon enough.
Because our kids live in an urban environment, and we don’t ferry them around by car—they’ve become quite independent. They ferry themselves, or come along with us by bike, on foot, train, or bus. We do use our car, say, for shopping expeditions or day trips—but more often than not, it sits quietly in our driveway.
Multi-modal transportation. You don’t need to look very far beyond the screaming headlines aimed at amplifying controversy to see that the reality is not about cars versus no-cars. It’s about the gradual, long-term shift toward a wider and healthier range of transportation choices that include a variety of transportation options including walking, biking, public transportation, shared rides, shared cars as well as privately owned and driven automobiles.
Get out and about, mindfully. Many people own cars and live in urban areas. But more and more urban households—by choice and by economic necessity—own one or no cars. Many of us are keeping our cars, however we are using them more mindfully, taking a second to stop and think “oh wait, maybe I can walk/bike/T there instead; it’ll be easier/faster/cheaper…” before grabbing the keys and getting behind the wheel
No matter how you choose to get around, we think it’s fascinating that this car-free trend is on people’s minds. What do you think? Are you driving less, and if so, why? Do you feel that “driving light” is just a fad, or does it signal a more permanent shift in how we get around?
Headquartered in Boston, Plymouth Rock Assurance Corporation provides auto insurance to personal and commercial auto insurance customers in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Plymouth Rock is a member of The Plymouth Rock Group of Companies, which together write and manage over $1 billion in auto and homeowners insurance throughout the northeast.