A new study from U.S. PIRG gives us perhaps the most detailed yet look at the “peak car” phenomenon whereby America’s passenger-miles driven keeps falling. As Ashley Halsey writes, perhaps the most important contention of the report is “data that show the cities with the biggest drop in driving suffered no greater unemployment peaks than those cities where driving declined the least.”
Specifically, the second- and third-largest declines in car commuting were seen in the Washington, DC and Austin, TX metropolitan areas which had two of the most robust job markets during the recession.
PIRG’s takeaway is that it’s time to stop lavishly funding new highway construction and instead focus money on a mix of maintaining existing infrastructure and improving mass transit services. I agree with that, but the budget allocations are in some ways the smallest pieces of the puzzle. The real gains are to be made in rolling back the implicit subsidies to parking and barriers to multi-family apartments, leveling the regulatory playing field between private cars and private transit, and looking at operational issues that prevent cost-effective transit operations in the United States. All of which is to say that while money is nice, what’s really needed is a much broader change of mind that doesn’t regard all alternatives to living in a detached single-family house with one car per adult as deviant behavior that needs to be regulated into a special box.