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New Illinois Priorities: Quiet Transportation Revolution in Car Use

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Scott Olson via Getty Images
Scott Olson via Getty Images

There's a quiet revolution in car use, driving patterns and car technologies that fundamentally will change transportation needs, infrastructure investments and traditional financing structures. As gas tax revenues decline, we need to prioritize better and make smart choices.

Let's prioritize transit and rail, which are gaining passengers, and "fix it first" when it comes to highways and bridges. The Chicago Transit Authority's heavily used Red Line badly needs modernization. The abrupt closure of the Grand Avenue bridge downtown reflected worse-than-expected deterioration. Engineering groups report that bridges across Illinois badly need repair.

So why are transportation funds becoming so constrained? Because people are driving less and with fewer cars that are more fuel-efficient and thus use less gas. There's more transit use and biking as more people move into cities. The combined impacts: lower gas tax revenues for all levels of government. Future mobility and transportation efficiency requires recognizing these changes and adjusting planning to fit the new reality.

Who's Driving Less?

Car ownership is very expensive -- moderate-income people are squeezed and vehicle miles travelled are declining. Younger people are moving into cities and need cars less. Today, only 22 percent of drivers are under age 30, down from a third in 1983. About 25 percent of Chicago households have no vehicle according to the 2010 U.S. Census, compared to the 14 percent carless households in 2000.

My 21-year-old son and his friends don't own cars, didn't get drivers' licenses until after high school, use public transit, and ride bikes. They share and rent cars when needed. They'd rather spend disposable income on new tech devices.

People under age 35 drive fewer miles annually than in 1990, and Illinois' per capita vehicle ownership decreased by two percent between 2007 to 2011. Nationally, the average annual vehicle-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds dropped 23 percent according to the National Household Travel Survey. In short, driving rates are down among younger Americans, who are more accepting of transit options and save money on car maintenance and gasoline.

Economics Matters

Buying, owning and driving a car is very expensive. Gas prices are high, and Chicago has among the nation's highest gas taxes. Tolls are doubling. Parking meter rates and parking lot taxes are soaring. License plate and city sticker fees keep going up. Insurance is pricy. Affordability matters.

Lifestyle and Cultural Change

Bikes are cool. The growing "sharing economy" is attractive. Traffic congestion is frustrating and boring. Biking and walking are healthier.

Cleaner Cars and Less Driving Mean Lower Gas Tax Revenues

The average fuel-economy of new vehicles is now nearly 25 mpg, up by about five mpg since 2007. Federal standards require a fleet-wide average for new cars of 35 mpg in 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. Cleaner, more efficient cars save us money at the gas pump, reduce carbon pollution and improve national security by cutting foreign oil imports. More fuel efficiency and less driving, combined with technological innovations in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, mean lower gas tax revenues. The voting public doesn't support raising gas taxes. The reality: less funds for roads, highways, bridge and local transit. We need to prioritize accordingly.

Prioritize Transit, Rail and Fixing It First

Let's prioritize "fixing it first" and vital upgrades instead of clouting the proposed new outlying Illiana tollway that isn't financially viable. Let's make Metra work better for passengers than patronage. Let's modernize Union Station as the Chicago-hubbed Midwest higher-speed rail network advances and Amtrak is achieving record-high ridership.

It's time to change Illinois' transportation culture of clout, "where's mine," and patronage. We can't afford it anymore.

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