Demographics as Destiny - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Demographics as Destiny

For Release Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tom Downs is chairman of the North American Board of Veolia Transportation and a former president of Amtrak. His e-mail is

The 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.


  1. 1. Tom Hibbs from Southampton, PA on January 16, 2012

    Thank yo for this compelling information. Our township has been the battleground over a 15 mile stretch of "unused" single track railroad since its deactivation in January 1983. Search "Septa R8 line" or "Fox Chase/Newtown Line". There have been numerous studies in the past and more recently a study was conducted by using taxpayer dollars to mainly illustrate the need for reactivating the line. However, no studies have been done to illustrate any present or future needs of "rails and trails". I personally believe our centralized community would greatly benefit from both forms of transport. Any additional information or links to recent studies would be appreciated. Email:

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