What’s Driving the Driving in Denver?

Visualizing Urbanization Trends in US Metro Regions

Ken Laberteaux, PhD, Senior Principal Scientist, Toyota Research Institute – North America


Gordon Feller

We’re going to hear today form a variety of leaders who are trying to understand what’s the process underway inside a city, which is not easy to do because we have imperfect data. We often have very little data. We have imperfect leaders, although I think Mayor Littlefield and Mayor Osborne here are exceptions, but most other mayors are imperfect. We have imperfect elected officials and appointed officials and all the rest of us in the imperfection realm.

But Ken, whose joining us here from his base in the Detroit area, is one of those people who is really asking tough questions and looking for empirical data. And he has a Ph.D. after his name so I guess they give that to people who really look at the data and don’t just talk about ideas; they bring it to the realm of the practical and the real. Ken is going to give us a picture. Here we are in the Denver metro region, the greater metro agglomeration, as the urbanists call it, and we thought it would be a good idea to get back into the place where we are to figure out what’s happening with driving and mobility and the urban growth pattern in the city of Denver. So Ken, thanks for joining us.

Ken Laberteaux

Thank you, Gordon. I note that yesterday afternoon, late in the day, you introduced one of the speakers saying, “I always try and save the best for last.” And in light of that, I appreciate you scheduling me as the first speaker today.

I’m Ken Laberteaux, I work for Toyota Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan and my presentation is called “What’s Driving the Driving in Denver?”

First of all, just want to acknowledge my great partners at MIT, Alan Berger and Case Brown. They do really excellent work.

So let me know if any of this sounds familiar. “The era of abundant fuel has ended for good.” “The romance of Americans with their car is ending.” “Public transportation is about to see a huge revival.” “One occupant per car just simply is not acceptable.” “The middle class is going to move back to the city and eschew their cars.” If that all sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember it from the 1973 December issue of Time Magazine. And that was written during a very deep recession, high oil prices, and a lot of predictions that turned out not to be very accurate. So the question then is: are we in the same bust/boom pattern? Let’s take a look.

This is where we live today. You can see a lot of open space to the West. And if we were to ick the point which would be the mean location of all US population from 1790, we see it is moving south and west without fail. And to look at it in a little bit more detail, these are census data. You can see just how much growth is expected in the South and West. In fact, I’d point out that in the State of Texas, there’s expected to be as many new residents in 2030 in the State of Texas as in the Midwest and Northeast combined, and the same is true for Florida, same is true for California.

Here’s a histogram of where we lived in 2000, basically showing that this many millions of people lived in an area that has about 100 people per square kilometer and so forth. And this over here on the right side is the trend line since 1960. The rural and urban has stayed about the same. All the growth has been taking place in the suburbs.

So we’ve done a pretty detailed case study using data from the Denver metro region, and this is what we saw the population was doing between 1990 and 2000. You can see that we’ve broken it up between the 0-5 miles, the 5-10 miles, and the 10-20 miles. And it’s only that outer ring that has grown in that decade. In fact, in 2000, it was almost as many people living there as the New York suburbs. Three of the fifty largest growing counties in the U.S. are in Denver, the Denver metro area.

This is a depiction of the Denver Regional Council of Governments, DRCOG, data. This is where they’re predicting new residents in the 2035 range. You can see that it’s very highly correlated to highway access. It doesn’t show – what is it, 76? – but you can pretty much figure out where it is where the orange dots are. And this picture right here is showing you a view from the air about thirty miles out; brand new community.

This is where the new jobs are expected to be. There is some in the downtown region, but even more so in the tech corridor here which is shown in the picture and in this Broomfield area which many of you drove past on your way out here. So I think – I look at this and it looks like the commute in Denver is still going to be very highly correlated with highway driving.

This is a flatter depiction of the same data. Basically shows what fraction of the jobs are in the downtown area, the 3-10 mile range and the 10-35 mile range, and already we’re about the point where that’s where the majority of the jobs are. Just by means of comparison, this is the Atlanta version of the same data and their trend is the same, they’re just further along.

This is a complicated graph; I’ll try and – but I think it’s important to understand. It’s a little stale; it’s 1997 data, but I look forward to getting updated data on this. But basically what they’ve done is they’ve taken the metro region, broken it up into segments, and we’ll blow up this bottom left one here. And basically what they’ve done is they are indicating how many trips either start or end in the green areas and how many of them start or end in one of these other areas. And so the first thing to point out is that it’s not the case that everyone is just driving from their homes to the downtown area where all the employment and shopping and so forth. The second thing to observe is that it’s kind of going everywhere; there’s a lot of geographic diversity in where people drive, or travel, I should say. Denver commute is predominantly by car, mostly by driving alone.

This is a quick comparison which I think – in the slide deck I think will be available I include the version for Atlanta, but I’ll just quickly summarize here. It shows that basically Denver – I’m sorry, Atlanta is twice as big and growing at twice the rate of Atlanta, but both of them you will see a lot of edge growth. Over 43% of the jobs are at least 10 miles from the city center. Very little mass transit. And in Atlanta they’ve actually already spread well past their beltway. So they’ve essentially already overridden the available highways there.

This graphic here, this is national data. The green line basically shows the U.S. population growth since 1960. The brown line is showing the price of a gallon of gas once you adjust it by the consumer price index. Interestingly although it does bounce around, it’s never greater or less than 50% of what is was in 1960. The pink line is showing the growth in the U.S. economy. And the blue line is showing the vehicle miles traveled, and I was really struck the first time I saw this. It’s not just that we have more people going to work and school and shopping, if so, you would expect the blue line to track the green line. It seems like there’s something more going on there. And yes, there is a divergence here in the last – you know, most of our data runs out right when all the interesting things start happening back in 2008, and so there’s a lot of questions about what’s going to happen next. Well, I’ll mention that in the next slide; what I think about that.

What you see is this new emerging view of the U.S. driver. The U.S. driver drives more as his wealth increases. Lives in the suburbs, works in the suburbs, drives between suburbs, and commutes alone by car. Commute distances are increasing. Drives an increasing fraction of miles on nonstop roads. Despite lower price, mostly doesn’t use mass transit unless it provides a significant convenience or time advantage. And finally is likely to live in the South and West where all of these trends are the strongest.

So here’s my intentionally provocative slide. Given this view, where should we as a transportation community be focusing our efforts in the US? Should it be trying to make mass transit more successful by attacking the last mile problem? Or is it acknowledging that the highways are here, they’re very popular, and that’s where most of the driving is taking place, and finding more efficient, safer, more comfortable ways to operate those?

So finally, what is driving the driving in Denver? I don’t know. This data shows what’s happening, alright? It doesn’t say why it’s happening, and I can show correlation all I want; I’m not proving causation, we all know that. And most of the public data kind of runs out when all of the interesting things happen when it all fell apart in 2008. Right now we are certainly in a trough. We’ve been here before. I think it’s interesting to – we’re all very interested in seeing what happens in the future, but yet these are long-standing trends and they should definitely be a part of the conversation.

Thank you very much.

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