True Story: Ratings Agency Pins Dangerous Roads on Car-Free Young People

The financial ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has a new report out that presents a bizarre theory about dangerous conditions on American streets. It’s the Millennials’ fault, “but not in the way you think,” they say. Prepare yourself for some ratings agency clickbait!

Millennials, causing crashes by riding the bus! Photo: US PIRG
Millennials, creating danger by riding the bus! Photo: US PIRG [PDF]
Standard & Poor’s blames Millennials not only for the poor state of transportation infrastructure but also the impending decline of the entire American economic enterprise. Here’s why: They’re driving less.

Richard Masoner at Cyclelicious has more:

A new report from Standard & Poors Credit Research (“Millennials Are Creating Unsafe Conditions On U.S. Roads–But Not In The Way You Might Think, purchase for $850 if you want to read the whole thing) claims this new trend of driving less, and driving in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, leads to less gas tax revenue (which is true), which in turn leads to less funding for road projects (also true), which in turn makes driving more dangerous! (ummmm… what?)

Because Millenials choose to spend their money on locally built housing instead of imported cars and fuel, S&P predicts financial doom for America:

“This drop in funds available to construct and repair the country’s infrastructure could, in our view, weigh on growth prospects for U.S. GDP, as well as states’ economies, and, in some cases, where states and municipalities choose to replace the lost federal funds with locally derived revenues, could hurt credit quality,” said Standard & Poor’s U.S. Chief Economist Beth Ann Bovino.

Masoner couldn’t plunk down $850 to read S&P’s illuminating study, so he has to speculate somewhat:

I don’t know what S&P recommends as a solution. Do they want people to spend more on Canadian petroleum to improve the U.S. economy? The Federal gas tax has been fixed at 18.4¢ per gallon since 1993, well before today’s Millennials could vote or drive. That 18.4¢ buys only 60% of highway spending compared to 1993 dollars. And nobody talks about the significant roadway damage caused by the trend in larger vehicles that Gen Xers like me bought in the 90s and early oughts.

Regardless, S&P’s circular argument couldn’t be more wrong, says Masoner, and it’s pretty simple to see why. The less Millennials drive, the less damage they can cause with their cars.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Urbanist reports that Seattle is getting six new school safety zones equipped with speed cameras. West North considers the economic value of filling in a high-profile DC parking crater. And Transport Providence shares an open letter to Rhode Island’s governor on how to bring the state’s transportation network “Back to the Future.”

  • Andrew

    For simplicity lets assume that everything is 4 miles away from everything else

    So you’re discussing a low-density suburb or rural area?

    Because in a city, you’ll often find multiple supermarkets and coffee shops within a several-block radius. The coffee shop and supermarket may be directly on the walk between home or work and the nearest transit line – i.e., not out of the way at all. That cuts the transaction cost and time to zero, unless traveling by car.

  • Miles Bader

    I go to a free language class every week that has a lot of people from different backgrounds, and recently we had a discussion about cars.

    There was a somewhat obvious age split, with the oldest being the most enthusiastic about cars. [Including this classic exchange: Old Person (enthusiastically): “Will you get a car when you can afford it?” Young Person: “Probably not.” O.P. (confused): “Why not?” Y.P.: “I don’t need one.” O.P. (dismayed): “Why not?” … >< ]

  • Miles Bader

    lot of city folk have no idea how much easier their lives would be with a car, or how much more they could get done.

    Conversely, many people who have driven their whole lives have a pretty myopic view of transportation, and have no idea how easy life without a car can be in many places, even in the U.S….

    [I’ve lived in a huge number of places, all over the U.S., and the world, and I’ve never had a car, nor a driver’s license (though I did learn to drive). When I mention this to people, they’re very often incredulous, and seem to think my life must be some sort of constant annoying hell, but … it’s not…. Transportation has essentially never been an issue, anywhere I’ve lived. Obviously I intentionally choose where I live, of course; I simply choose not to live in transit free strip-mall-burbs, and that pretty much suffices.]

  • Miles Bader

    Keep in mind that gas taxes only pay for highways. You’d have to raise local (property/sales/etc) taxes as well, as the vast majority of roads are local, and those are typically paid for out of general funds.

  • I agree that suburban transit cannot compete, but a bike trip for a journey like you described is certainly not impossible and in many areas, won’t necessarily take an insurmountably longer amount of time. The problem is that most bike infrastructure fails massively. “Bike lanes” on arterials are not exactly desirable places to ride and decent trails are usually only unlit rail-trails in the middle of the woods, which is hardly an appealing proposition for most people. With better investment in good bike infrastructure, especially in new projects, the problems you mentioned would be diminished. Also, no adults are forced to lug around a helmet (except in a few backwards places), leave it at home if it’s a problem.

  • murphstahoe

    But wait – doesn’t that invalidate S&P’s whole argument about lack of driving causing the bad roads 🙂

  • calwatch

    Exactly. Ride and walk more, work less (either fewer hours or a shorter duration), and become financially independent so you can do the things you really want to do.

  • SuperQ

    Yup, I used to live in SF. After a year of mostly not driving it, I sold my 10 year old car for $2500 to someone in the burbs.

    I estimated that I used about $50 in zipcar use per month, and about $60 in cab fair. Once you factor in insurance and registration, that $2500 covers over 2 years of zipcar and cab costs.

  • Alicia

    For simplicity lets assume that everything is 4 miles away

    By “for simplicity”, it looks like you mean “for the sake of putting a thumb on the scale.” I live in fairly small city and that estimate is ridiculously exaggerated. I have 4 grocery stores within a mile of me. Probably over 20 restaurants within a mile. Work is three miles away (when I have to go into the office, which I don’t do every day) and classes are less than one mile.

    Also, are you talking public transit or taxis? Because if you are actually talking public transit, than there is no way that “each leg is ten bucks.” In my town, it’s $2 per ride. In NYC, it’s $2.75. In LA, it’s $1.75; in Boston, $2.10; in Chicago, it’s $2.25.

  • Alicia

    Live in a city? Great! If travel out of the city regularly, either for fun or for business; you’re going to want a car.

    So basically, you’re unfamiliar with the concept of traveling by bus, train, or plane.

  • Andrew

    His low density suburb apparently doesn’t have transit. If you don’t have a car, you’re stuck taking taxis.

  • PaleoBruce

    > Many people need or want a car; it makes sense to them, and it probably always will, and that’s okay.

    Okay only if you are willing to ignore externalized costs, like climate change etc..

  • reasonableexplanation

    You are absolutely correct, you can change your lifestyle to be far less car dependant, and many people do so with no problem. I would argue that by doing so you give up some freedom; which is okay for some, but not for others.

    With a car most trips can be spontaneous, unplanned, with transit, and to a lesser extent with a bike, more care is needed.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Other transit modes are great for city center to city center, but what if you want to go off the beaten path a bit? Or perhaps you’re visiting a friend in a different city who lives in a more affordable part of town, say 30 mins from the city center? Let’s say you live a similar distance away from your central railway/bus station… the door to door times start to add up.

    Example: Amtrak from NYC to Boston takes just over 4 hours (station to station). But you live in Bushwick, and your friend lives in Cambridge. You end up with a raw time of 45min+4hr+30min=5:15, and that doesn’t count the overhead you need to leave in terms of waiting for trains, arriving a bit early, etc. To compare, driving door to door would take 3.5 hours. That’s a big difference.

  • calwatch

    Yeah, but then you have to pay for the car. It’s a tradeoff. Also, the time in the car is spent staring ahead, driving (mostly alone), while you can do other things on public transit, or get some needed exercise in if you bike.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Of course it’s a trade-off. On the other hand you have comfort, flexibility, and many people actually enjoy the act of driving. So again, may not be a good fit for some, but it’s a great fit for others.

  • CalRobert

    Hah, I sold my car when my gf and I moved in together 4 years ago. We used the money saved to take a trip to Europe every year, during one of which we got married. She seems ok with me not having one.

  • reasonableexplanation

    That’s somewhat of a tangent. You can very easily replace a gas car with an electric, hybrid, or even any modern small car that gets >35mpg if you want to reduce effect on the environment substantially.

  • murphstahoe

    Money = freedom. It does you no good to have a car to go to the football game if you can’t afford a ticket.

  • User_1

    OK all you Millennials out there. This should be your call to arms! It’s time to step it up and buy that huge vehicle that’s less than 20% efficient and throw away that latest model iPhone you got! You are now going to be driving around to see what your friends are up to! And when you’re wondering what to do, you and your friends are going to drive around and find something to do.

    For all the male Millennials out there, here’s a tip on what to get. Get the biggest and baddest pickup you can find! Preferably 4wd with big tires and all jacked up. Slap on some mud flaps and a riffle rack inside the back window and you’re set! Chicks are going to be flocking to you like pigeons to seeds! You’re set!

    DO IT FOR AMERICA!!!!!

  • Joe R.

    Not everyone is so pressed for time that an extra hour or two each way on a trip you might only make a few times a year is going to matter. Also, consider that those 4 hours on the train can end up being productive hours where you get a few hours of work done. The time spent driving is completely down the toilet.

    Even if none of the above was true, it makes a lot more sense for a city dweller to just rent a car for these kinds of trips. Given how much cars cost, it makes no sense to own one if you mainly use it for occasional weekend or holiday trips.

  • Alicia

    Plane from NY to Boston takes under an hour and a half. Maybe add on another hour to account for getting through airport security. And (according to Google Maps) taking a bus from Boston to Cambridge takes about a half hour. So, two and a half to three hours. Driving isn’t the fastest option by far. Plus you have to deal with the frustration of big city traffic vs. getting work done or relaxing on a train, plane, or bus.

  • reasonableexplanation

    You are correct, but some people do value time this way, so a car makes sense for them. That’s what I’m trying to relay: people’s needs and wants are different.

    In a similar vein; some people love driving, and 3.5 hours to Boston with a nice audiobook, climate control, or your favorite music is not wasted time at all.

    I’m a motorist, pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorcyclist, and very much for complete streets, transit, and all of that, but it frustrates me to see people who don’t use some modes of travel try to put down the others because it doesn’t make sense to them. You see it on streetsblog against cars, you see it on car blogs against bikes, you see it everywhere against motorcycles, etc. I wish people were really more inclusive and understanding that all modes of transit have a place alongside each other.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Not so simple with planes (I wish it was!). You have to arrive about 90 min in advance of a flight to make sure you make it through secuirty, it takes about 30min to get to the airport, and then it takes maybe another 30min once you arrive to deplane and get your bags. so 90 min flight + 90 airport + 30 arrival + 30min bus = 4hrs.

    So no savings over driving with along with a substantially increased cost (plane tix are expensive!). This crosses over into business traveler territory, which is fine too, but probably more of a niche.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    There’s more to consider – taking the bus relieves traffic, less total time of vehicles on road because they can move faster without as much traffic. In most cities where buses are used extensively, the traffic would come to a standstill without buses.

  • Joe R.

    I’m more anti-car in cities than anti-car. I used to be an avid reader of Car & Driver back in the 1980s and 1990s. I still keep up with automotive technology. I’m a really huge fan of both electric cars and self-driving cars. And I “get it” about enjoying to drive, but the “open road” these days really only exists when you’re more than maybe 50 to 100 miles from major population centers. Getting out of cities to get to the open road is such a hassle as to negate any joy such driving might provide. And then you have the fact US highway speed limits are ridiculously low, way too low for “spirited” driving.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    I have noticed that in developing countries, in addition to formal large-bus routes which run buses packed to capacity, there are also a multitude of informal bus routes, using smaller mini buses. These informal bus routes can be set up quickly, filling niche needs that the formal bus routes cannot. And of course the buses are lighter.

    It begs an idea: an informal mini-bus maxi-taxi system with a smart phone interface – half bus half taxi -vehicles carry multiple riders with a computer in the background solving the optimization problem of how to satisfy the constraints (passenger requests, available buses) while minimizing some criteria (cost, time).

  • reasonableexplanation

    You really don’t have to go far to enjoy the ‘open road.’ In terms of NYC, once you’re 30mins out (in almost any direction), it gets pretty enjoyable, as long as you’re not in the middle of rush hour. Additionally, you don’t need an empty country road like you see in car commercials to enjoy driving, for a lot of people, as long as there isn’t much traffic, a regular parkway can be just as nice.

    Actually, to go on a tangent a bit, I wish people placed a bigger emphasis on separating peak vs off peak restrictions on cars. Again, going back to NYC as an example; I feel like moveNY or similar plans would get a lot more support if the tolls were lowered or removed completely during low demand times, when there aren’t a lot of cars anyway. I drive to midtown from points east sometimes, and I gladly pay the toll for the tunnel during the day to avoid traffic on the free bridges, but it feels pretty silly to be paying that same toll at 6am on a Saturday morning when I just want to drive to Newark.

  • C Monroe

    When they put a BRT line in my town, I suggested that they discontinue 3 bus routes and replace them with local circulars to feed the BRT line. The three routes to be eliminated were the current route the BRT would piggyback and 2 other that ran parallel a half mile on either side of the BRT line. This would have freed up about 10 buses and would create 10 circulars, basically one bus would travel in one direction one mile down the BRT street, 1/2 mile down a cross street, one mile to the parallel street, 1/2 mile down a parallel cross street and then back on the BRT street. Basically 15-20 minute circles. This also would give the BRT street a local bus service on its route, give cross streets service if they do not have it already and possibly more frequent service to the parallel streets despite only going in one direction. I got this idea from the South American BRT systems.

    After suggesting to look into something like this, the local transit authority looked at me like I had two heads. Instead they kept all three routes and the BRT. The BRT ridership is not meeting its goals, but that also might have to do with not having a desirable destination(empty cornfield) on one end. They also picked the most rundown street so they treated this transit project as a real estate growth scheme.

  • Erika Blanda

    What are you doing? this article is copied from http://tinyurl.com/nl38hwy

  • Gabriella Jenkins

    What are you doing? this article is copied from http://tinyurl.com/nl38hwy

  • R.A. Stewart

    Be just killing me now, please.

    But hey, the woman from Malaysia can rightfully claim to be a real red-blooded American already.

  • Joe R.

    I’m not sure the idea of needing a car to date was universally true even back when I was young 3 decades ago. I knew lots of couples where neither had a car.

    Nowadays not having a car may well be seen as an indicator of both financial stability and a fiscally conservative lifestyle. For what it’s worth one big reason my sister divorced her husband was his penchant for getting a new car every few years. They really couldn’t afford it, but he was like a kid in a candy shop when going to a car dealer. I’ve known my share of people whose finances were in disarray solely because of their car expenses. In the final analysis, owning a car is an extremely expensive proposition which has really poor returns for the vast majority of people. Car dependency in the US has become a form of virtual indentured servitude, especially for those on the low end of the wage scale.

  • Miles Bader

    Yeah, it was pretty depressing… These are intelligent and well-educated people too.

    Unfortunately much of the developing world seems bound and determined to repeat every mistake the U.S. has ever made…. ><

  • scottmercer

    Eff off spammer.

  • Baloo Uriza

    OK, so an average transit bus with 40 average-weight Americans will weigh in at 42640 pounds and have six points of contact, rolling dynamically over a pavement surface that will flex (in varying degrees depending on materials involved, and the environment they’re in). That same 40 average Americans in 40 average sedans will weigh in at 135480 pounds (over 3 times more) and have 166 points (nearly 28 times more) of contact applying dynamic wear.

    Now, you don’t have to be a civil engineering major (or, heck, even taken a course in the physics of static structures) to realize that, individually, the bus will cause more damage on a per-vehicle basis, but the cars will do significantly more damage collectively. Nor do you need a degree in transportation planning to understand that you basically don’t need any formal training to design a roadway around a few buses but doing so for 40 times as many cars is going to take a working knowledge of both game and graph theory to even put a keyscratch in the traffic management issues that generates.

  • Baloo Uriza

    Flawed conclusion, based on the assumption that it takes as many buses as it does cars to move the same amount of people and goods. Also, not sure where you’re getting 5000 pounds from, given the average car weighs 3221 empty. I mean, Americans run heavy, but like, just shy of 200 pounds heavy, not 2000 pounds.

  • Baloo Uriza

    Well, there’s nothing informal about neighborhood feeder lines in most cities transportation planning, they’re either there or they’re not. But, the idea that you come to the conclusion to is how rural mass transit operates in Oklahoma right now, and typical big-city paratransit in most of America. Prime examples of each would be Cherokee National Transit (the tribal transit network, covering the entire 30-something county Cherokee Nation), Ki Bois Area Transit (a rural transit agency serving an unbelievably large region); and on the other end, TriMet “LIFT” (Portland’s paratransit service) and Metro Tulsa Transit Authority’s “The Lift” (Tulsa’s paratransit).

  • Baloo Uriza

    Assuming that they can afford to do so. Tulsa Transit basically runs off grants from the George Kaiser Family Foundation after the idiots in city council refused to fund it (guess which party!). So, GKFF steps in to get a contribution from the transit agency side to get matching funds from the Federal Recovery Administration’s TIGER program to run a shoestring service in Tulsa. Which is great if you happen to have a straight shot (somewhat unlikely) or multiple redundant options (black astronauts, unicorns and acceptance of diversity in the pacific northwest are more likely) available to you, but if not, it’s a mode of absolute last resort when a bicycle is unavailable or impractical.

  • Baloo Uriza

    Road surfaces generally last longest when they’re on a sufficiently deep and well-drained gravel ballast of decreasing granularity the higher you go, with a concrete substrate sealed by an easily replaceable asphalt cap. But, that’s hella expensive, so most places cheap out on the ballast and go either/or with the surface material, when both together work best. Asphalt is too flexible and concrete isn’t easily, cheaply and quickly resurfaced. But you use concrete under the asphalt and suddenly it pretty much takes a significant manufacturing defect to get much more than wear-and-tear on it.

  • Baloo Uriza

    Or the surface, if you don’t put a relatively disposable layer on top of it to weatherproof it and protect it from vehicular damage. Otherwise, you get this: http://www.mapillary.com/map/im/-v2HVvHzT-bnlLSmKqyn2g/photo

  • dr2chase

    I did that math, and the answer is “more”.

    Math here: https://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/city-busses-are-surprisingly-very-bad-for-roads/

    Measured in an arbitrary unit (pounds-cubed / wheels-squared / 1,000,000,000) a Lincoln Navigator scores 10.4, a 40-person bus scores 29.5 per person. A fat guy like me on a “normal” bicycle scores 0.004, two of me on a cargo bike or tandem scores 0.03.

    Do please check my work, because I keep hoping that the number might be wrong, at least for buses. For bikes, obviously, that’s great news.

  • dr2chase

    Driving door to door is 4.25 hours, according to Google, and Google’s timing for that route (which I mostly know) is aggressive. There’s also no estimate of time to find a parking space at the NY end.

    Last time I rode the train I also spent my time productively doing things that would have been flat impossible while driving.

  • dr2chase

    As long as your planning doesn’t include traffic jams and looking for parking. Your model of what can be done on a bicycle is not exactly accurate, either.

  • Bernard Finucane

    And the government doesn’t subsidize the transportation infrastructure for you. Money = power

  • Baloo Uriza

    You’re really, really close. But, the question was single occupant vehicles, so that would mean 40 single occupant vehicles for a score of 416, rather than one for a score of 10.6, in which the bus is closer to the bicycle than the cars. Though not sure what your initial weight values are, but considering they’re likely in the right ballpark, at that point we’re just splitting fractions.

  • dr2chase

    29.5 is PER PERSON. So 416 versus 1180.
    If you follow the link, all the weight values are there, including links to where I got them except for my estimate of 150lbs per bus passenger.

  • Baloo Uriza

    OK, then the math’s a little off because you’re still counting one person per bus, no?

  • dr2chase

    No. 40 people on a bus do 29.5 units of damage PER PERSON.
    5 people on a bus do 144.5 units of damage per person.
    At crush capacity (75) you get 24 per person.

    The increase in damage done by a bus when the first 150lb person climbs on the bus is 10.48 units of damage (yes this is possible, cubic functions suck that way) which is hair more than if that person drove an SUV instead. That’s not per one person, that is “given that the bus is already running, is it better for the roads if I ride it, or drive my Lincoln Navigator?”

    Did you click the link? Did you read the arithmetic that is all laid down there? If you have a Mac or iThing and install the Calca app, it is cut-and-paste executable except for the line or two that I wrapped.

    If you want to look for a real math error that would be great. If you want to just guess at mistakes I might make without even looking, that’s not so great.

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