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Climate Change

Are Boomers to Blame for America’s Dirty Transportation System — And Can They Fix It?

We spoke with one Baby Boomer says his generation needs to step up to end climate change — and he's got some advice.

12:00 AM EST on January 9, 2024

Whether in political office, in the board room, or simply behind the wheel of an SUV, Baby Boomers have been behind some of the worst climate decisions in recent memory. But they also have a unique opportunity — and responsibility — to repair the planet they helped wreck, especially when it comes to the transportation sector. 

At least that's the argument behind the new book Am I Too Old to Save the Planet?: A Boomer's Guide to Climate Action by Lawrence MacDonald, a card-carrying member of that generation and an activist with climate organization Third Act.

For this episode of The Brake, we sat down with MacDonald to talk about how Boomers helped perpetuate and expand the transportation system their parents created, how advocacy changes with age, and how to talk about how car dependency and climate are intertwined — no matter our stage of life. 

Listen in below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.

Streetsblog: Whenever I have authors on, I like to start with an elevator pitch. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of this project, and maybe, in a few words, why Baby Boomers need their own specific manual for climate action.

Lawrence MacDonald: The Boomers, as some of your listeners might know, was called the "Baby Boom," because birth rates shot up right at the end of World War Two when the GIs came home. And they stayed high from 1946 until 1963, when women's changing view of what they could do with their lives, and the availability of the pill, brought birth rates down.

So we're a big generation. And we have driven the culture and the politics — and not only in the United States. Because the United States was the sole superpower during the period of our hegemony, we really determined what happened in the world. So I feel that we Boomers have a particular responsibility.

And we still have a lot of power. There's 70 million of us. We're the second-biggest generation today after the millennials, and we've got 70 percent of the country's wealth. So if we get organized, we can make a big difference.

Streetsblog: So you ask a big question right at the beginning of the book, which you hinted at your answer to here, which is: are Boomers to blame for the sorry state of the climate crisis, and for the lack of political engagement around the climate crisis? I want to narrow that down just a little bit for Streetsblog's audience and ask you a slightly different question: are Boomers to blame for our transportation system as it exists right now — that car dependent, fossil fuel driven, very transit-light way we have of moving around in America — especially given that a lot of the groundwork for that system was laid before you were born? I mean, you weren't the generation that invented cars; you weren't the generation that built the highway system. What does this generation uniquely have to do with creating the transportation mess that we're in today?

MacDonald: Well, my answer to the question 'are Boomers to blame for climate change' is, frankly, 'yes.' And I would actually say the same thing for the terrible transportation system that we have.

You make a good point, however; the Interstate Highway System, which famously carved up neighborhoods, but also liberated people to travel across the country — that was an Eisenhower achievement. And the Baby Boomers were around, but we were little babies then. So I don't think we can take the blame for the interstate highway systems. But certainly, we were raised in the new suburbs, and we embrace suburban way of life. And [soon enough] we were calling the shots.

So when there were choices to be made as we came of age, we were defunding mass transit and funding more highways; we were responsible for those choices. In a few places like here in DC, we're blessed here to have a decent Metro, though it's not as good as it could be or should be. But in many cities, like Los Angeles, the Boomers consistently voted for more highway and less transit. And so I think we are to blame .. [We] have not, in my view, banded together to say, 'You know what, we could do better than this. We can have walkable communities, we can have bikable communities, we can have more compact communities.' But that requires collective action.

The other thing is [that] if you turn on television, we are bombarded by advertisements for cars. And the notion that the car brings you personal liberation is an idea very closely tied to my generation.

Streetsblog: I'd love to hear you say more about that ... What does the car mean to a Baby Boomer that it might not mean to a member of the greatest generation or a millennial like me?

MacDonald: If you look at the iconic American car brands, they mirror the life trajectory of the Boomers. So when I was young, the big car to have was a Mustang, you know, or some other kind of muscle car —or you went the other way into hippie things like Beetles and microbuses. Those were the iconic brands and the best selling cars of the era.

As we then got older and started having kids, that became minivans. And I was part of that; I had kids, and we needed a minivan to haul the family around. And then minivans were seen as passe and kind of not hip enough, and there was a big surge and ownership of SUVs, which, as your listeners will know well, are actually built on truck chassis, so they are big and dangerous and fuel inefficient. That [trend] was driven by Boomers who said 'you know what, I'm kind of done with the minivan; it's not hip enough. I want this no boundaries SUV."

And now that we're aging, we're downsizing. Some of us are going for, you know, mini SUVs or other kinds of crossovers where we can still enjoy the freedom of an automobile, but have something that is little, little more peppy, a little easier to park, maybe better mileage into the bargain. So I would say that, you know, we came of age with the car, and we shaped American car culture.

Streetsblog: So you've hinted a little bit that it's going to take collective action to undo this whole mess, and I couldn't agree more. But in the book, you do also outline a few personal actions that we all could collectively and individually take that really matter, and specifically how Boomers can engage in them. And one of them near the top of the list is very close to the Streetsblog mission, which is: drive less, walk, bike, and take transit more. Why was that included in your list of particularly impactful actions? And what challenges do Boomers specifically face when trying to take that advice?

MacDonald: ... There's a lot of research showing that people's transportation choices, like their dietary choices or their decision to put solar panels on the roof will influence their neighbors. Particularly around transport, when you get out [on a bike] —as I did today, when I rode from here into DC and back — you start noticing the gaps in the bicycle safety system and you become an advocate for safer bicycle systems. When you start taking public transport, you notice if the frequency is not what it should be, or the cleanliness is not what it should be, or it doesn't go where you need to go, and you become more likely to be an advocate. So personal action and transportation can both encourage other people to copy us. And it can make us into better citizens through advocacy for system-wide improvements.

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