News | July 14, 2015

Word on the Street: Changing preferences demand new approaches

SELC’s Land and Community Program tackles the growth challenges and decisions shaping the Southeast. This series of posts will run every other week for the next few months, highlighting some of the broader issues driving this work—transportation and land use developments, alternatives, and progress in our region.

There has been a dramatic shift in American’s driving habits. After years of steady increases, the total number of miles we drive has leveled off and the average amount each person drives annually has declined. Demographic changes and shifting preferences are major factors underlying this trend, fueling an increase in demand for walkable communities and reduced dependence on automobiles. Placed against the backdrop of continued rapid population growth in the Southeast, these developments highlight the critical need to provide more transportation options.

The two largest age groups are responsible for much of this shift in demand. For many Baby Boomers, the allure of a larger house and a big yard wears off as they age and become empty nesters. Downsizing and moving closer to amenities and convenient transit access becomes more appealing. Meanwhile, the wired millennial generation often seeks a more urban, active lifestyle, showing a preference for being able to walk or bike to work, bars, and restaurants. The prevalence of these preferences predates, and has outlasted, the “Great Recession,” indicating there’s more than the economy at play.

Yet these changes undoubtedly have economic implications. It’s no coincidence that population and housing prices closer to metro centers have increased recently in many regions, reversing years of decline. Although suburban property was often the most expensive land 20 years ago, a series of recent studies nationwide found a significant price premium in central city neighborhoods as compared to the drivable suburbs (40-200% higher per square foot). The changes aren’t lost on businesses, either. More and more, companies are choosing locations closer to transportation hubs and vibrant walkable, transit-oriented communities as they look to attract a millennial workforce.

Despite this transportation and land use policies in the Southeast continue to focus predominantly on building new highways that spur far-flung development patterns and the environmental problems they cause, even as transportation funds grow more scarce. Staff Attorney Kym Hunter manages the transportation team in SELC’s Chapel Hill, NC office and is keenly aware of the importance of making better investments. “It’s a time of very limited transportation resources,” she noted, “so where are we going to spend those dollars?” SELC encourages policy reforms and investments in smart alternatives to driving, such as rail, transit, walking, and bicycling. For example, we are currently supporting an effort to bring light rail to Chapel Hill and Durham, an area that has increasingly seen new investment from businesses due to the vibrant urban lifestyles it offers. Unfortunately, the state of North Carolina thus far has failed to provide the investment needed to complete the project.

“The fundamental issue is that for decades we’ve developed land and built roads in a way that assumed everyone would want to drive everywhere forever. However, these assumptions aren’t accurate anymore,” said Trip Pollard, Leader of SELC’s Land & Community Program. “We need to plan for the reality of a growing and changing population. We need to move away from state and local policies built around an outdated model and meet the demand for greater transportation choices.”

Previous Post: Promoting cleaner transportation and smarther growth