How much will you be driving in 30 years?

Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis have been holding meetings about plans to reconstruct a stretch of Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. There are several design options, including one that adds more sidewalk space and others that add bicycle facilities — either a buffered bike lane or separated bike lanes known as cycle tracks.

While construction for part of the area is anticipated in 2014, the process of creating the plan has involved looking far into the future. The way Washington Avenue is rebuilt this decade is greatly affected by traffic projections over the next 30 years.

How much driving will there be? Given the changing development patterns of the downtown, with more residents and planned redevelopment around the Vikings stadium and Elliot Park, how much walking or bicycling will be “a la mode” along with driving? 

The Washington Avenue rebuild is an interesting case in point of a discussion going on all across the country about changing travel patterns. We are driving less, in Minnesota and nationwide, but will that continue? We also are walking and bicycling more. And transit use is rising.

As we look at Washington Avenue or any stretch of roadway, what should determine how it’s built — the flow of cars at rush hour (known as peak travel time) or the flow of people (walking, bicycling or driving) at many different times of day, including rush hour?

In the specific case of Washington Avenue, there has been much discussion (on blogs — see — and at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committees of the City of Minneapolis) about how many lanes are needed for motorists. The plans all call for two eastbound lanes, one turning lane, and three westbound lanes.

The question of the third westbound lane is the big one. If that lane stays, there’s not enough room for both wider sidewalks and a protected bicycle lane. If it goes away, rush hour delays for cars heading westbound will be longer.

But, there’s not agreement about whether in 30 years or 10 there will be more or fewer cars trying to get around at rush hour or other times of day.

Nationally and in Minnesota, rates of driving are declining. The steady upward trend line that held for decades turned flat and even began to decline in the last decade. The trend started before the recession and has continued. But, it’s not clear that models used to predict traffic patterns have adjusted. Should they?

The driving boom is over, according to “A New Direction,” a report from the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG): “Americans drive fewer total miles today than we did eight years ago, and fewer per person than we did at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term.”

The report notes that transit use and trips by bicycling and walking have increased as rates of driving have declined.

But what about the long view? Is this a blip or reason to change the models and the way we approach street design?

Even if rates of driving were not flat or declining, there are several reasons for making our roadways safer for people who want to walk (seniors and kids for instance) or bicycle or drive. In 2010, Minnesota adopted a Complete Streets policy that gives MnDOT the flexibility to design for all users of the road. Passage was sparked in part by the heart-breaking death of a man trying to walk to church in Chaska. Reminder of the need comes too often, such as in the death last year of a girl trying to cross a road in Chanhassen.

The long view suggests that the Millennial generation is already changing our travel patterns from driving to transit, bicycling, and walking and may yet change the models, too. By 2030 and up to 2040, this generation will dominate the “peak driving age 25-54 year old demographic,” says USPIRG. So far, a high percentage of Millennials have chosen to live in areas where it’s possible to get around without depending on driving. They are making choices based on other kinds of connectivity.

If they stay with this pattern, driving rates might hardly increase at all by 2040, even as the overall population grows. And even if Millennials start driving at the rate of previous generations, “the rate of driving is likely to be lower than is assumed in recent government forecasts.”

Which brings us back to Washington Avenue and other roadways coming up for reconstruction. As you see announcements or new of public meetings about upcoming projects in your area, consider what travel patterns you expect and how street design could affect how easy or hard they might be.

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.