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Despite population growth, car use declining in Twin Cities

Significant drop in “trip making” surprises transportation planners.

Greg Larson
MinnPost photo by Judy KeenGreg Larson

Whenever he can, wetlands scientist Greg Larson drives from his home in Woodbury to a park-and-ride lot and takes the bus to work.

He switched to transit a few years ago and figures riding the bus instead of driving saves him $70 a month in gas and parking fees.

Larson typifies a trend that’s playing out in the Twin Cities metro area and across the country: He’s driving less and using public transportation more.

“Hopefully, it’s the wave of the future,” he says.

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The Travel Behavior Inventory Report released this month by the Metropolitan Council found that despite population growth, total car use fell in the last decade, from 7.7 million trips every weekday to 6.3 million.

The study, which is conducted every 10 years, found transit usage rose between 2000 and 2010 to 3.2 percent of trips, up from 2.5 percent.

Key factors

The faltering economy and high gas prices over the past few years likely were factors in both trends, says Mark Filipi, manager of technical planning support for Metropolitan Transportation Services.

The report concludes that an increase in telecommuting also contributed to the drop in car trips; 33 percent of workers in the region work outside the office at least monthly.

Still, the “actual significant decline” in what transportation planners call “trip making” was a surprise, Filipi says. Until 2000, there was a continuous increase in the number of trips made daily – a progression that began in the 1940s when women began joining the workforce in large numbers.

People are thinking twice before driving to spend money on activities like movies, restaurants and shopping, Filipi says, and technology has eliminated the need for some car outings. Online shopping and streaming video, for example, put a dent in trips to malls and video stores.

Larson epitomizes another factor: Instead of making multiple separate trips, he and his wife “find a morning or afternoon and do all our errands on one trip,” he says.

The decline in car trips might be temporary, though. Filipi says that when gas prices drop or people just get used to higher prices, they tend to revert to old driving habits.

Still, he believes that once people try buses and other transit systems, they’re inclined to keep using them. Discretionary transit riders – those who own cars – often are happy to avoid congestion and parking hassles and the freedom to read or use electronic devices during their commute.

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“The hard part is getting people to use transit,” Filipi says. “Once they have, then it’s just another way of getting to where they need to be.”

Filipi says the area’s “love affair with the automobile” is not about to end. Eighty-four percent of Twin Cities area trips are still done by car and 76 percent of people who drive to work do so without passengers.

Those driving outings are getting more frustrating. Between 2000 and 2010, the average trip distance increased from 6.6 miles to 7 miles, and the average time rose from 17 to 22 minutes.

“I like driving, but I don’t enjoy driving in the kind of traffic we have,” Larson says.

‘I don’t like to drive’

Andrew Trent, who lives in Woodbury and works at a downtown St. Paul bank, drives fewer than five miles from home to a park and ride where he catches a bus to work.

“I don’t like to drive,” he says. “If I had my choice, I wouldn’t own a vehicle.”

Trent is 33, but his attitude mirrors the perspectives of members of the Millennial generation — those born between 1983 and 2000. The travel behavior report found that people in that age group seem to be postponing getting driver’s licenses and driving cars. Many members of that demographic group who are older enough to drive are more likely to live in cities, use public transit and bike or walk to get around.

Andrew TrentMinnPost photo by Judy KeenAndrew Trent takes the bus to work in downtown St. Paul because it’s more convenient and economical.

“They are concerned about the effect they have on the environment and they’re technologically more astute,” Filipi says. So they use smart phones and other devices to keep in touch with their social network, sometimes instead of in-person encounters.

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Data from the survey will be used to inform policy decisions about future transportation development. “We can’t build our way out of congestion,” he says, but light rail will help. He also believes there will be more managed lanes – at a price – and additional express-bus options.

Who travels most?Building more freeways probably is not on the to-do list. “More freeways only solve the problem short term,’ Filipi says. Five years after a new one opens, drivers looking for the fastest way to get somewhere fill them up.

We might be on the verge of dramatic technological breakthroughs in transportation, he says.

Google and some carmakers are developing technology for driverless cars, and a company in Israel is working on flying cars.

Larson will settle for some earthbound improvements. He wishes more express buses were available in the early morning hours and into the evening, and he’s eager for next year’s opening of the light-rail line between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“The bus is a fantastic option,” he says, “but I’m really looking forward to light rail.”