Here's one important but underappreciated reason Tampa Bay needs to pick up the pace on better mass transit and lessen its dependence on more and bigger roads.
Fewer people are learning how to drive.
A new University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute survey out this week found that over the past three decades a smaller proportion of Americans have been getting drivers' licenses. Consider these trends from 1983 to 2014:
• There has been a 47 percent decline in 16-year-olds with drivers' licenses.
• For people ages 20 to 24, there's been a 16 percent drop.
• For those ages 30 to 34, the decrease has been about 10 percent.
We'll look in a moment at the reasons behind these rising number of people who cannot drive. But the implication seems pretty clear. If this persists, a good chunk of the country's population, and especially the younger adults who make up our future workforce, will choose to live where there is quality mass transit not only because they want to — but because they have to in order to get around without a car.
That does not bode well for a metro area that remains profoundly behind most competing cities in providing mass transportation. The Tampa Bay area, right or wrong, has chosen to half-heartedly promote mass transit options to its voters one county at a time. And when each new plan fails, it simply ping-pongs the next round of ill-fated transportation efforts to the adjacent county, until it, too, gets shelved for lack of voter support.
Major businesses pay attention to this stuff. So do talented people choosing where they want to live and work. In the years ahead, if this metro area dithers, more will simply go elsewhere to find skilled workforces that have access to good public transit.
The University of Michigan researchers offered some conclusions why more and more people are not bothering to get a driver's license. Of folks ages 18 to 39, 37 percent say they are too busy, while 32 percent indicate it is too expensive to own and operate a vehicle. Nearly a third say it is easy enough to get rides from friends. In lesser numbers, people surveyed say they prefer biking or walking, choose public transportation, have environmental concerns, can handle their needs online or say they have a disability that discourages or prevents them from driving.
Consider the "it's too expensive" argument. It's a major factor in the Tampa Bay market, where low-wage jobs, the high cost of rental living and, for many, the burden of student debt make car ownership out of reach.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, correctly, has argued long and hard that the urgently needed next generation of young adults is much more likely to seek an urban "live-work-play" lifestyle. That's one reason downtown Tampa is starting to revive, aided by major redevelopment projects in the Channelside and Tampa Heights neighborhoods.
Efforts to refresh and expand Tampa's streetcar system, the disruptive arrival here of ride-sharing businesses like Uber, new bike-sharing projects, the early exploration of a ferry linking the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg? They are all signs of testing alternative ways for people to get around without using their own vehicles.
Or getting a driver's license.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.