America: The Aging, Diverging, and Urbanizing

The Reality and Challenges of Demographic Shifts in America

In her 1961 book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs prophesied that ignoring the importance of sidewalk life and perpetuating automobile dependency in urban planning would have dire social consequences. We have all heard the argument: without eyes on the street, the streets will inevitably become deserted, crime-ridden barrens.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the scenario is not truly that simple; a deluge of negative social, environmental, and health effects has been observed from US transportation policy’s emphasis on facilitating automobile travel. Widespread use of the automobile has isolated vulnerable populations and created stigma against alternative modes of transport. In 2017, the United States finds itself rapidly diversifying, aging, and urbanizing, and the transportation system will be the crux of creating a more sustainable, inclusive society – or failing to do so.

America’s population is shifting in distinct ways that call for a more multimodal approach to transportation, but the current system favors those who are capable of and can afford to drive. The population is aging at an unprecedented rate, meaning more people than ever will be needing access to resources that enable them to live independently for as long as possible. In the past year, the public health sphere has been abuzz with new evidence indicating that social isolation is as harmful as obesity or smoking cigarettes, and unsurprisingly those most at risk for social isolation are the elderly. For these individuals, transportation is the main barrier to maintaining social connectivity and accessing basic resources, such as pharmacies or grocery stores.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also, income inequality is becoming increasingly severe; the average yearly income of the top 1 percent of earners is 25.3 times that of the bottom 99 percent. The cost of car ownership is putting undue strain on growing numbers of people with many middle-class families living paycheck to paycheck. Access to adequate transportation has been touted as a mechanism to break the cycle of poverty by providing access to jobs and services while decreasing overall costs of living.

Another major population trend occurring in the United States is that of urbanization, and this is being driven primarily by millennials who have abandoned their small-town roots. The generation has also displayed a unique trend of ditching their cars once they move to the city, and studies have reported that a majority of millennials would be willing to relocate for better transit options. Being the largest generation by total population  as well as the future of the workforce, cities are keen to attract and keep these young, promising individuals by catering to their needs – including varied and reliable commuting options.

The Future of Transit in a New Administration

Now that we have examined the major population trends occurring in the United States and the implications for transit demand, how might policy makers address the need for a shift away from the historic fixation on automobiles? Many European cities are imposing car bans, and the 2016 election cycle saw a sweeping approval of transit measures nationwide; the United States is facing an opportunity to move away from its auto-dependent history and create a more accommodating transportation network for everyone. However, 2017 will usher in a new governmental assemblage whose stance on transportation is murky to say the least. Newly inaugurated President Trump intends to follow through with a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan using a funding scheme similar to tax increment financing. Most of this plan focuses on roads, highways, and bridges; unfortunately, Trump favors huge, monumental projects with quick financial turnaround, and public transit does not fit that role.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite mounting demand for public transit and cash-strapped cities in need of federal funding, the platform of the incoming cabinet wants to eliminate Highway Trust Fund spending on projects like mass transit, bike-share programs, and rail-to-trail projects. Large infrastructure spending plans, such as Trump’s, are typically met with scorn from right-swinging politicians, so the fate of funding for infrastructure, especially of the non-car-oriented variety, is up for speculation.

While cities will feel growing pressure to provide public services to an ever-growing populace, it seems unlikely the federal government will be helping much in the way of funding under the new administration. Multimodal transit options are one step on the path to sustainable, inclusive development in the United States. While we need policy measures that support the rapidly aging, diversifying, and urbanizing population, the flow of political power is in opposition to these demographic shifts and the needs that come with them.

About the Author: Ally Clonch is a North Carolina native and first year graduate student in City & Regional Planning and the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC. She is interested in researching the effects of the built environment on population health outcomes, especially as they relate to health disparities in low-income and minority populations. Outside of school, Ally spends her time perusing thrift stores, getting coffee with friends, or reliving her glory days by watching 90s television shows.