Timothy Hullihan: Wrong-way thinking drives Turnpike expansion

FDOT’s recent announcement of their plans to expand Florida’s Turnpike in Palm Beach County brought to mind something my father often said: “Bigness is the problem.” When agencies grow too large, they function like massive cruise ships – great at moving forward, but so poor at changing course they need tug boats to help them.

FDOT needs help changing course, or Florida will not capture much of the job creation that will happen in the next decade.

The 1996 documentary Taken for a Ride (available for free on YouTube for educational use) explains how we became a car-centered culture. Today, most of us still spend hours each day behind the wheel as part of our daily routines. The roads we use are over-crowded, stressful places. The parking structures are mostly full, dehumanizing and inconvenient. Our vehicles are expensive to own and maintain, while contributing massively to air-pollution.

You would think that we would be smarter than this.

Recent data shows that the Millennial generation is, and the trends we see in their changing transportation habits should give us pause when it comes to highway expansion.

A recent article by Emily Badger in the Washington Post summarizes research from the University of Connecticut presented at the 2015 meeting of the Transportation Research Board that shows the well-documented drop in annual miles driven in the U.S. is not just a function of the recession, as previously thought. Depending on what part of the country you live in, the statistical decline in miles driven began as far back as 1992. For 41 of the 50 states (including Florida) the peak in miles driven happened before 2006 – more than a year before the recession began in late 2007.

Related research shows that Millennials are leading our national recovery from automobile dependency. They are choosing alternative means of transportation (bike, walk, transit) in greater numbers than other groups and making lifestyle changes to support an anti-car mindset. Their broader acceptance of cars as a source of air-pollution combines well with their desire to live in places that offer transportation alternatives.

Millennials now comprise a third of the U.S. population. They are an unconventional, and often overlooked, force for change. FDOT’s failure to respond to declining car use (now in its 10th year in Florida) is similar to other trends Millenials have blind-sided the mainstream with recently. For example, they are credited with tilting the 2012 and 2014 elections in ways that were not forecast; and they are quietly making Uber and AirBNB mainstream alternatives to entrenched billion-dollar industries.

The relevance of their transportation preference has not gone completely unnoticed, however. The Marriott Corporation just announced plans to move out of their suburban Washington D.C. Headquarters and into a place (not yet named) that is more in line with the transportation preferences of their increasingly younger employee base. CEO, Anne Sorensen, explained in the Washington Post, “…our younger folks are more inclined to be Metro-accessible and more urban.”

So, why are we expanding the Turnpike in Palm Beach County?

If we are driving less in Florida, and an emerging segment of our working population is signaling that driving is less likely to be part of their lifestyle, what is the justification for more lanes on the Turnpike?

State, county or local government leaders focused on job creation need to recognize that places built around the old car-centered mind set are no longer appealing to broad segments of the population and the corporations that employ them.

The state of Florida was largely developed in the last 70-years and, therefore, is heavily dependent on the automobile; so I understand the resistance to change. But if our counties, cities or towns can only offer ever-expanding roadways as its primary transportation system, we are positioning ourselves to be left out of much of the job creation over the next decade.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer living in North Palm Beach. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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