In Honolulu, the words “Middle Street merge” and “zipper lane” are enough to raise the blood pressure of most daily commuters. The average Oahu resident, after all, wastes 88 hours in traffic each year — traffic that has been named among the worst in the nation.
It is an issue that everyone here has strong feelings about: The stress of it, the strategy for combatting it, the bad drivers who exacerbate it, the way the city and/or state either deals or doesn’t deal with it, the rail project’s effects on it, etc, etc.
In the absence of seasonal weather changes to discuss, traffic is our small talk.
But what if I told you that might change over the next 20 years?
Traffic along the morning commute on Beretania Street near the Punchbowl Street intersection.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
As millennials — by our sheer numerical supremacy — continue to co-opt society and shape it to our liking, our distaste for traditional “car culture” will, hopefully, ease some of the burden on the roads.
Millennials, it is often noted, avoid cars when we can. Those of us born between roughly 1981 and 2000 are less likely to get driver’s licenses, less likely to take road trips, and more likely to get around by alternate modes of transportation.
Put simply, we’re driving less than young people before us did.
There are multiple economic and demographic reasons why, according to experts, including our strained finances in the sluggish economy, our own sluggish motivation to start families, our preference to live in urban areas where walking or public transit is cheaper and easier, and the convenience and ubiquity of car-sharing and ride-sharing businesses like Zipcar and Uber.
The Washington Post also points to the fact that my generation has never known consistently cheap gas prices and that the “relative cost of driving” has increased. You can now read and respond to email on your phone, allowing non-driving commuters to start their workday earlier.
There is also an important cultural shift at play.
Millennials are used to using their phones to do email and other work-related tasks.
Noreen McDonald, a transport scholar with the University of North Carolina, has researched millennial driving habits. Writing in the Journal of the American Planning Association, she says that, the decline in car travel among millennials is as much “due to changing attitudes and perspectives about driving” as it is due to economic and demographic changes.
Those changes in attitude and perspective are obvious to any parent who has been lobbied relentlessly for a new laptop or phone, but not the classic 16th-birthday car.
When my parents were young, they lovingly nicknamed their cars and saw them as status symbols. They still have fond, wistful memories of their cars, as if they were another member of the family. My generation, however, feels more strongly about our laptops and phones.
While cars aren’t going extinct any time soon, we have, in effect, replaced which technological mass of metal we feel sentimental about. Or, as Uber investor Bill Gurley so succinctly put it, “Millennials don’t give a shit about cars.”
Of course, Uber benefits from propagating that belief, but (coming from someone who personally took more than 10 Ubers in the past week) the proof is in the numbers, especially in Hawaii: In 2000, according to Blue Planet Foundation, the percent of 15- to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license in Hawaii was 25 percent. In 2013, that number was 36 percent.
Nationwide, many millennials have shown a strong preference for biking, walking and public transit over driving. While we are more eco-conscious than other generations, our aversion to driving has less to do with our concern over carbon footprints and more to do with how we define quality of life.
When it comes to sitting in traffic, for example, older generations took comfort in being in “the privacy” of their own car. Millennials, conversely, would rather sit in the presence of strangers since we are never more than an app away from our friends, our work and, quite frankly, our lives.
A cyclist makes his way in the King Street bike lane near Victoria Street.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In Honolulu, we’ve definitely seen the demand for bike lanes increase — I personally dream of the day Honolulu’s bike-share program is a reality — but interestingly, The Bus ridership has not seen significant increases.
In fact, according to the Blue Planet Foundation, The Bus ridership has remained relatively flat since the early- to mid-1980s.
In an email to Civil Beat, Shem Lawlor, the clean transportation director for Blue Planet Foundation, said the stagnation “has been the result of not investing in transit.”
Which brings us to rail, the $6 billion gorilla in the room.
The controversial financing aside, if rail has any chance of being successful in Hawaii, it will be because of millennials.
Let’s, as Obama would say, be clear. Honolulu’s traffic nightmare won’t dissipate overnight — as an island, it will always be congested — nor is rail, with its taxes and runaway spending, guaranteed to be a net positive for Honolulu and Hawaii.
But when millennials do eventually start having families and moving farther afield, all evidence so far points to the fact that they will opt for a rail commute over a car commute. Once in town, you’ll likely see more bikers, more pedestrians, and more heads buried in screens.
Millennials, after all, are transforming society in a multitude of ways — creating a way to spend more time with our preferred hunks of metal is just one of them.
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