Changing preferences challenge transportation agencies

LANSING — Increased fuel efficiency, an insufficient gas tax and younger generations’ disinterest in owning cars have created a complicated combination of financial concerns for Michigan transportation agencies.

Experts predict it’s not likely to change soon.

Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said younger generations increasingly depend on other forms of transportation as they put off a major car purchase.

That trend “showed up in a survey in the mid-2000s, where it said the public wanted more access to move around and they wanted different choices on how to move around. In fact, we had never gotten that response before, and we’d been doing the long-range plan for decades,” Steudle said.

MDOT surveys the public on topics such as access to different modes of transportation while working on its 30-year, long-range plan.

The department also cited the Federal Highway Administration’s profile of Michigan that reported transportation characteristics of baby boomers and millennials.

In 2013, driving alone to work ranked highest for both groups, with about 1.3 million baby boomers and 783,039 millennials, the federal study found. Millennials outnumbered baby boomers as users of every other mode of transportation: carpool, public transit, bike and walking. About 9,000 more millennials used mass transit, and about 5,000 more biked than baby boomers.

Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association in East Lansing, said younger people depend less on gas-fueled cars and more on public transportation.

“The bulk of our funding comes from the gas tax, and in both Washington, D.C., and Lansing, the gas tax — with fuel efficiency and less people driving — is a source of diminishing returns going into the future,” Harder said.

Steudle said the shift away from personal cars and federally designated fuel economy standards mean less gas will be sold. The state’s gas tax, which is set to increase in 2017 for the first time in 20 years, helps fund roads and transit agencies.

“When you sell less gallons, you have less funds going in. So this trend is going to continue. And if the trend of less vehicle miles traveled, if that continues, it will have an impact, as well,” Steudle said.

Harder said, although public transit is one of the only “real winners” in the recently passed road-funding plan, it will be increasingly difficult to make up for the loss in revenue from gas tax.

“Ultimately, something is still going to have to change — not just in Michigan but nationwide, and something is going to need to change in how we’re funded,” Harder said.

“We’ve always been the poor stepchild of transportation funding.”

Brandon Schoettle, a research professor for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s Human Factors Group, studied the trend of young adults without driver’s licenses in the U.S. He said about 20 million people age 16 to 39 don’t have licenses, or about 19 percent of the age group.

Schoettle and fellow institute researcher Michael Sivak, authors of a 2013 report, The Reasons for the Recent Decline in Young Driver Licensing in the United States, said 34 percent of 30- to 39-year-olds without a driver’s license said “owning and maintaining a vehicle is too expensive.”

“In our survey, about 22 percent of those without a license said they had no plans to ever get one. As the economy improves, we will keep an eye on the data to see if this changes in the coming years,” Schoettle said.

In the same age group, 20.9 percent reported they prefer public transportation, and 21.8 percent prefer to bike or walk.

Programs to meet the interests of that population have sprouted.

Nate McGuire is the founder of the Spokefly bike-sharing program that started last summer in Grand Rapids. He said he didn’t start biking regularly until he was carless.

“I had just gotten rid of my car and wanted an easy way to get around on a bike without owning one. I love not having a car,” McGuire said.

“As more and more people move into cities in the United States, we’ll see an increase in people using alternative transportation options like the bike.”

According to the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Spokefly was the first bike-sharing program to launch in the area.

Young people are looking for less-expensive and faster ways to travel as their numbers grow in cities, and McGuire said simply enjoying the experience also keeps people riding bikes.

“Getting around on a bike is a great way to connect with the city you live in and an even better way to get around,” McGuire said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone frowning while they’re on a bike.”

In urban areas, McGuire said biking is often faster than driving. He also said the growth in bike use has many economic advantages. Not only do bicyclists have more money to spend without car and insurance payments, but they increase foot traffic to stores.

Spokefly also operates in Austin, Texas, and in San Francisco. Since the program is self-serve, any area with a high-enough demand can ask Spokefly for assistance.

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