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Demographics as Destiny

Tom Downs / Sep 03 2011

For Release Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thomas DownsThe new demographics are found in two generations deeply influenced by suburbia. First there’s the 20-30 something’s who grew up in suburbia and, like all generations, do not want what their parents wanted. The second demographic are their parents, who are now becoming empty nesters with a five-bedroom McMansions in the suburbs.

According to housing and location preference surveys, the younger crowd wants to be in the center of things — downtown. They want cafes, restaurants, entertainment, and other young people to socialize with. They want walkable communities with parks; they want bike trails; they want to bike to work; and they want transit.

At the aging boomer cutting edge, what are we interested in? For boomers, preferences split almost down the middle. Half of the 50-60 somethings want to move to a larger house in a semi rural area. They wanted to build their “Dream House”, the house they wanted all their life, but deferred it to raise their children. The other half want to move to a central urban area with a walkable, transit- accessible life style. They want easy access to shopping, food, music, art, and health care. I always thought that this split speaks volumes about my generation. I do not know what impact the great housing collapse has had on those dreams, but my guess is that they are still the same, only deferred.

Where might we see these generations going after we recover from this housing collapse? Further out suburban growth seems handicapped by long-term increases in energy prices and no market mechanism to create the capital to build new suburbs. There actually seems to be an over supply of McMansions. Energy costs and maintenance costs make them unattractive. Denser development, more walkable neighborhoods, better small-scale retail, sophisticated transit, and neighborhood amenities like parks, and the “new” libraries, seem to be the right market response.

What we need to do is change the way we think about non-motorized transportation and transit. When freight railroads were reshaping America and when, later, highway building did the same, we witnessed the power of transportation to shape our economy, our cities, and our concept of mobility.

I would suggest that walking, biking and transit are about to become the next wave of transportation to shape our urban areas. And that combined, they are a new mode of transportation. Looking at the location and lifestyle preferences of Gen X and Y, as well as the preferences of aging boomers, it seems clear that a distinct advantage is going to go to urban areas that can meet that market demand. However, we are still captive to the notion that these modes are fringe, “green” and non-essential. and “soft”. A hundred years ago the automobile was considered a rich man’s toy that was unreliable and scared the horses. Change is a constant in transportation.

So, how do we begin to think about this new mode as an economic development tool, in the same way we use to think about highways? If the transportation component of your local economic development planning is uninspiring, if it puts vague hope in some new roads, if it ignores transit, and if less than one percent of your combined transportation investments are in the growth modes of biking and walking, you do not have a transportation component to your economic development strategy.

If you think about this as an economic competition for the location choices of two of the largest generations in American history, then you can begin to ask questions. Transportation for what? Transportation for whom? What about transportation cost effectiveness? New York City is betting its transportation (and economic future) on a new way of looking at mobility. Portland, Ore., has created an entire economy at the regional level by thinking in new ways about light rail, biking and walking. I was recently in Amsterdam where more than 50 percent of the population takes transit, bikes or walks to work every day. These places made those decisions not because they felt good. They made them for rational economic reasons.

It ultimately comes down to how we think about the use of the public right of way. Most successful regions start with mapping the way people are walking, biking and using transit in the same way we used to count cars: Look at the flow and the demand. Plan sidewalks with walking in mind. Repair the sidewalks that are falling apart. (It is actually pretty cheap to do.) And how about transit that allows riders to track buses and trains in real time on their cell phones? How about bike accessible transit? How about signal coordination for buses? How about setting a goal for the percent of commuters who bike to work? Most planners say that their weather is not conducive to biking, but the second highest percentage of commuters who bike to work is in Minneapolis (winter) 3.4 percent. Portland, Oregon (rain) is, of course, first with 4.5 percent.

We have all thought of these opportunities as not real transportation issues. All things change, even the role that auto mobility plays now regionally and nationally. You can see the change on the horizon. It means seeing things in a different way about how we make our transportation investments. Think of biking, walking and transit working together as a new new mode. It has not yet jelled. It is driven by demographics, energy prices, and competitive advantage. Think of these developments as more important that highway or aviation investments now. Think of them as your future. Think of them as one of the lead components in your economic development strategy.

Tom Downs is chairman of the North American Board of Veolia Transportation and a former president of Amtrak. His e-mail is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted September 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m an 80% bike commuter in Lexington, KY and have been cycle commuting (in various cities) for a total of over 20 years. I am not a traffic engineer, just a vocal observer.

    There is a phenomenon that I like to call the “Weakest Route Link” Even if 90% of the route from work or school to home is Class A bike lane, the 10% of cycling-hostile terrain will keep the average semi-timid commuter from riding.

    This is why I think that mapping existing patterns of bike use as a planning tool sets up failure for cycling projects in cities. It gives the politicians nothing to work with in their pleadings. As far as I can tell, the numbers are lowered by mapping the fragments, not the potential of the whole. This is entirely different math. Inexperienced traffic engineers who have spent their entire career shaving seconds off of cross-town transit time are suddenly being asked to throw out everything they know and work with pedaled vehicles at 18 mph. It’s a PITA.

    I may sound idealistic and be uninformed about some things. But I think that cities must take the risk, move ahead of the data and reproduce efforts in other, perhaps European, cities. A city has to say “We’re about to become a 20% cycling city in 5 years, like it or not, Mr. Suburbanite.” and set out to create continuous cycling thoroughfares based on cycle route computer models, not actual cyclists. But it must not stop there. In addition to USING the cycling infrastructure that’s built, the city must loudly promote and celebrate its use. It must use social media and other marketing approaches to demonstrate the efficiency and effectiveness. It must deploy cyclist-helpers to show commuters the best route from neighborhoods. Tax breaks, secure bike parking, free emergency zipcar rental, etc. are also helpful.

    I wonder if this idea could become a project or venture start-up. To use Google Maps or GIS data and create cycling route models in such a way that city governments could do simulations and what-if scenarios. They should include real-world cycle commuters’ feedback because they all have experience with the emotions of getting started. The psychology of cycle commuting, as well as the cycling network effect need to be accounted for.

  2. Posted September 3, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    As much as one personally supports Mr Down’s scenario, never underestimate urban land and housing costs to refavor the suburbs, especially the inner ones. Previous generations have favored private space, measured in cost-per-square foot. This becomes important as soon as families begin to grow- so I wouldn’t presume that a youth trend will last forever or is a harbinger of a totally changed world.

  3. Marc Brenman
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    So let me see if I understand this: If I take a bike to work, I arrive sweaty and grease-speckled, and need to find a secure place to lock my bike, then shower and change clothes at work. Then change again to ride home. If I take a bus, I have to stand out in the rain and snow and sun waiting for it to arrive god knows when. If I take Metro in the DC area, I have to stand, be delayed as it breaks down, be worried about my safety, then walk up a very long escalator because its broken. How about just skipping all this nonsense and work from home? Virtual transportation solves many of these problems, including congestion and pollution.

  4. Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Choice is the key both for transportation options and for housing options. Owners and renters, condos and McMansions can all be part of the mix. Public policy needs to stop subsidizing one choice over another. Demographics and economics are helping to make greater density more attractive to more people. The solo driver with the 50 mile commute and the ex-urban one-acre housing lot will always be with us. Fine. There will be plenty of folks, not the least of whom are new immigrants, who will eschew auto-dependent isolation in favor of mixed-use walkable neighborhoods near jobs, transit and entertainment. I live in one of these places and could not be happier. My goal at age 51 is to retire in place — someday!

  5. Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Fact is, we just don’t know how this will play out. Some articles like this one believe the cities will be reborn and high density multi-molal communities are the future. Others say that Americans do not want, and never will want to give that up and, in fact, as soon as economic and policy constraints are lifted, the rest of the world head to this pattern too. No one knows who is right. So how do local governements do long range planning in the 21st century? I’m working on a guidebook rigth now to try and help explain to local governmtns how to do long-range planning when the future is so uncertain. Any thoughs are much appreciated.

  6. Posted September 9, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    We at the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago couldn’t agree more with Mr. Down’s statements. Here, we’ve developed a three pronged approach to transportation investments:

    1) spend the limited dollars we have smarter – invest in multiple goals with each dollar so economic, environmental and socical equity goals are simultaneousely advanced, that is the method we used to identify a new BRT network for Chicago.

    2) Maximize the use of existing infrastrucure. In addition to BRT which moves more people per linear foot of lane mile than single occupancy vehicles, we’ve been partnering with the Toll highway Authority to implement managed lanes that allow buses as well.

    3) reduce the demand for costly investments. With our friends at the Project for Public Spaces, we’re pushing Placemaking to enchance the public realm and make biking and walking much more attractive. Both lower cost, efficient transportaiton options.

    all of these initiatives are described in full detail on our website,

    Tom Downs is spot on.

  7. Posted September 13, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Bubbles will burst and calamities will occur – FOREVER. Population and planetary resources will limit economic growth – FOREVER. Perhaps planners should reconsider the concept of recovery as a bounce from the lows rather than a long-range sustained growth like we have experienced so far. The best that we can hope for is to stay near the top. We are there.

  8. Buff Brown
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    3 years ago, Bloomington High School South held an event to encourage participation in the International Walk to School day, and they promoted all these modes of transportation, and they called it Walbikus (WALk, BIKe, bUS) ; pronounced Wa-bi-cuss (short ‘i’). It was later picked up by an environmental faith-based group to encourage the use of these modes to religious services. They produced buttons that said “I Walbikus. Do you?”