Friday, May 25, 2012

Our increasing urbanity, revisited

In this post (which is amazingly 18 months old already, seems like I wrote it just yesterday), I talked about America's inexorable march toward city living, and the consequences of that increasing urbanity. I wondered whether cities themselves had become "too big to fail", and whether a reversal of the trend on the following chart was overdue.

I presented my opinion that technology should enable us to reverse that trend (think telecommuting), and to move out of the cities and back out to the countryside. But increasingly, it seems that my opinion is flat wrong... or at least way too early. Urbanization continues to sweep the globe, and there is no shortage of opinions that this urbanity is in fact the key to future economic growth.

While I personally question whether cities are in fact as efficient as they may seem (which I covered to some degree in my previous post), I certainly agree that the collaboration that occurs in those settings has consistently proven to be an essential aspect of innovation and societal progress. But maybe that's not the only reason our cities are growing--maybe, it's just out of economic necessity.
“Unfortunately for car companies,” Jordan Weissmann noted at a couple weeks back, “today's teens and twenty-somethings don't seem all that interested in buying a set of wheels. They're not even particularly keen on driving.” 
Now a major new report from Benjamin Davis and Tony Dutzik at the Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall, at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, documents this unprecedented trend across a wide variety of indicators. 
Their two big findings about young people and driving: 
- The average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) in the U.S. decreased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, falling from 10,300 miles per capita to just 7,900 miles per capita in 2009. 
- The share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased by 5 percentage points, rising from 21 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010, according to the Federal Highway Administration. 
Young people are also making more use of transit, bikes, and foot power to get around. In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001. They walked to their destinations 16 percent more often, while their passenger miles on transit jumped by 40 percent. 
Part of the reason for this shift is financial. The report calculates the average cost of owning and operating a car as north of $8,700 dollars a year, and that was before gasoline passed $4.00 per gallon. In the wake of the financial crisis, many underemployed young people have decided that they either can’t afford a car or would rather spend their money on other things. The report cites a Zipcar/KRC Research survey, which found that 80 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds stated that the high cost of gasoline, parking, and maintenance made owning a car difficult.
Of course, living in a city makes eschewing a car much easier, which could be a contributing factor to our continuing urbanization. Furthermore, most of the jobs that help young people to quickly pay off debt are also concentrated in those urban settings, which makes them even more attractive. So in that sense, it's completely unsurprising to see that rather than fleeing cities, young people are flocking to them.

My expectation that technology would enable us to leave the city may indeed be wrong-headed. Maybe we CAN leave the city, but we just choose not to. And if we can figure out a way to grow food on a large scale in the city, there may in fact be no need at all for the rural settings of our past.

But for me, I'm more than happy to use technology to allow me to live out in my semi-rural setting (okay, fine, I live on the outskirts of a "city", but believe me... NYC this is not), avoiding the headaches that city living presented. It's not for everyone, clearly, but I enjoy being liberated from the city, and I suppose that choice alone is all that really matters. Technology affords us flexibility, and we can do with that flexibility what we choose.

[The Atlantic]

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