The implications of few drivers licenses, more (electric) car sharing
by Allen Best
From his office at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project in Boulder, Colo., Will Toor keeps a steady focus on changes in transportation, with an eye toward land-use and energy implications.
One trend that Toor has been following for a number of years is the reduced number of people, ages 16 through 44 getting a driver’s license. The trend is particularly evident in the age bracket of 20 to 24. In the 1980s, some 91.8 percent got driver’s licenses. In 2014, the figure had dropped to 76.7 percent.
This isn’t a short-term blip, says Toor. The trend, as monitored by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, has clearly been established over several decades.
Combined with that is a reduction in vehicles-miles traveled (VMT) per capita among younger people. There are various explanations, says Toor. Millennials —those born between the early 1980s to about 2000 – are more inclined to live in urban areas. “They want to use smart phones, and driving gets in the way of that,” says Toor.
Low gas prices of the last two years have produced an uptick in VMT , but the long-term trend of reduced driving is clear enough. Whether millennials will continue to drive less than baby boomers, their parents, is anybody’s guess.
“It’s difficult to predict the preferences of different demographic groups into the future, but it’s pretty striking, with the drivers license, to see this continual downward trend,” says Toor. “It’s been 30 years now for fewer people under the age of 44 getting a drivers license. There’s no indication that this is a short-term trend that will turn around.”
Increasing urbanization in the United States undoubtedly plays a factor in this, says Toor. “People living in urban areas drive less and use public transportation more.”
But there are some wild cards out there, most prominently the autonomous or self-driving cars. It’s unclear what impact this will have on land settlement patterns. One potential is that freed of having to pay attention to driving, people will decide to live farther and farther from their jobs and other activities.
On the other hand, car-sharing has been coming on. What this will mean hasn’t been clearly identified. It could mean that fewer people will have cars. This has many implications. It might free up land currently devoted to parking for other uses, such as parks.
Car-sharing, if it becomes a major trend, could also have implications for air quality. The pathway is through electrification. Shared vehicles could get driven 50,000 miles a year instead of the current average of 13,000 miles. Increased use puts a greater premium on fuel costs. Shared electric cars would likely be cheaper to operate on a per-mile basis, say 15 cents per mile, compared to the 51.5 cents now allowed by the International Revenue Service, even if the upfront costs are higher.
Expanded use of electric cars would also put a dent in ozone pollution of metropolitan areas, assuming that electrical generation from natural gas replaces that from coal, as is now occurring along Colorado’s northern Front Range.
Advocacy groups have been moving into this nether world. Rocky Mountain Institute has a project involving Austin, Texas, and Denver. They examined the business models for Uber drivers and concluded that for vehicles driven 50,000 miles a year, over the course of a lifetime, a Tesla model is actually the cheapest, despite the higher initial costs.
A net-zero energy development
Pie in the sky? Too soon to tell, of course, but noteworthy are the plans of a real-estate developer at the Geos neighborhood project near 64th and Indiana, in western Arvada. There, Norbert Klebl has started construction of a project consisting of close-to-net-zero energy houses. Part of the plan is to downsize the space devoted to garages, with the assumption that the two- and three-car garages will be unnecessary. Klebl, however, does plan to introduce car-sharing in the modest-sized development.
Clearly, Klebl is not a mainstream developer. He can probably best be viewed in the front trickle, at least a decade ahead of the giant production builders. But based on what he’s done at GEOS and individual spec homes in Boulder County, he says, owners of raw land in both Lafayette and Colorado Springs have approached him, because they want something better than the prevailing norm.
BRT in Colorado
Also at the front edge of the norm is U.S. 36, between Boulder and Denver. In his earlier career, as Boulder County commissioner and mayor of Boulder, Toor also lobbied hard for deployment of bus-rapid transit on the highway in the tolled lanes.
That system is largely in place now, and Toor says that anecdotally the BRT is working out as expected. He’s personally been able to commute from downtown Boulder to Union Station in Denver in as little as 39 minutes on Flatiron Flyer, using the lane dedicated to buses and toll-paying drivers. That’s fast, and the only thing faster —and just a small bit at that—would be a person paying a toll of $17 to drive it in a personal vehicle.
Could it be better? Toor faults the staff at the Regional Transportation District for nickel-and-diming technological upgrades that would make the BRT experience even better. There is, for example, no WiFi in the buses, and the apparatus for advance purchase of bus fares at stations, similar to what is available for light-rail riders, has not been installed.
Has the success of the BRT in the Denver-Boulder corridor proven the case for deployment of BRT in other congested corridors in Colorado? BRT is also being considered for Colfax Avenue in Denver and between Boulder and Longmont.
It’s probably too soon to know how it will affect public perception just yet, says Toor.