How to Bridge the Generation Gap in Sustainability and Sprawl


Are we actually, finally moving away from the automobile?

Generation gaps have been around as long as civilized society has existed. Whether it’s grandpa telling you to “turn down that racket!” or being on the receiving end of a furrowed brow because of cohabitation before marriage – older generations will never understand the younger.

But the saving grace has always been that we can largely agree to disagree. Tweens can listen to all the Justin Beiber they want without it having a significant negative impact on the lives of others. A committed couple can move in together before marriage without actually giving anyone a heart attack. At the end of the day, the young will do what they will and the older generations sigh with wisdom, as they went through the same thing themselves.

That is, unless we’re talking about cities – places baby boomers tend to avoid as young professionals going against mid-20th Century tradition relocate to the downtowns of America. Still, baby boomers with their suburban-bent have all the power in the world while young professionals with an urban preference are left voiceless in their own communities.

That needs to change.

Designed To A Fault

American cities, by and large, have been designed by and for the baby boomer generation. They wanted cars, wide streets and highways, and boy, did they get them. Now the remnants of a more equitable form of urban development (say, trains) are buried beneath the layers upon layers of asphalt that have drowned American metro centers, leaving lifeless streets in their wake.

To be fair, the decisions made throughout the 1960s and 70s were done (mostly) with best intentions. It naturally sounds great to assist people in moving around more quickly, so we can all have our slice of the American Dream – white picket fence and all. It wasn’t until later in the 20th Century – leading up to the present – that all the components of the road industry (oil, asphalt, engineering, etcetera) became heavily laden in financial and political interests.


Regardless of how we got here, this all has led to an unsustainable sprawl, a larger carbon footprint, and dwindling tax bases in shrinking cities, making it next to impossible to stay efficient in delivering essential services at an affordable rate. Not to mention jobs are fewer and life in the suburbs costs more than many realize.

The result of these colliding factors has been a return migration to the urban cores of America by millennials. And with this return has come a drastic change in lifestyle, one older generations outside New York City, Chicago and San Francisco cannot understand.

For starters, cars are no longer the social crutch they once were. Many used to see automobile ownership not only as a rite of passage, but also as a necessity in life. While the mentality is still strong in certain corners of the country, millennial driving is ultimately dropping.

Why? It’s a mixed bag. There are financial considerations. Millennials would rather spend their expendable cash on the latest smartphone or tablet. Car ownership is no longer seen as the American freedom it once was. Instead, it’s akin to a two-ton ball and chain, costing thousands per year. Add a few more thousand for general maintenance that always seem to come a-knocking at the most inconvenient moments.

Along those same lines, priorities are changing. According to Gartner, a technology research and advisory company, 46 percent of millennial drivers, 18 to 24, said that Internet access was more important than owning a car. There’s no doubt baby boomers (a.k.a. our parents and grandparents) can’t make any sense of the trend, but it’s a trend that doesn’t appear to be going away. In fact, researchers predict Americans will continue to drive less in search of more walkable communities.

So What?

Now here’s the problem. We can argue over the city versus suburbs debate with our elders until our throats are bleeding. But unlike music, the opinions we walk away with do have a long-lasting impact on one another. Mainly, the opinions of older generations hold far more clout, as they are the ones running the show. There are no millennials in Congress or leading any of the state transportation departments. These positions are still held by the aforementioned elders who walk away from sustainability conversations thinking the millennials might just be nuts.

Instead of observing trends over 10 to 50 years, they look at the next year. Will exurban populations abandon their homes over the next year? Will they demand alternative methods of transportation? Probably not. There might be some statistical fluctuation supporting the urban trend, but not enough to convert our leaders to the choir. By focusing on the immediate future, our leaders don’t see that their children and grandchildren will not be buying a McMansion in the exurbs. In fact, they might not be purchasing a home at all!

This problem of the urban generation gap made itself clear to me following a conversation I had with a local county councilman. I tried to explain how constituents in his district would eventually demand an alternative to driving for commuting to work in downtown Cleveland. Today, the respective councilman’s home of the very walkable and charming Chagrin Falls, Ohio has no direct public transportation connection to the City of Cleveland. Now despite some of our leaders’ best efforts, Cleveland still is the economic and social heart of Northeast Ohio. People want to and need to be here.

Ignoring the long-term trends, the Councilman in question insisted today’s reality would always be the case, because his district will not want to pay for commuter transit. But the argument isn’t that a majority of constituents want to pay for more alternative transportation choices today (though some have made it clear they do), it’s that the next generation will. By not anticipating these demands, we’re forcing our respective communities to play catch-up late in the game.

How Do We Address This?

These individuals, like the Councilman I spoke with, were raised in an era when the automobile was billed as God’s gift to the American people. A majority simply either cannot imagine a generation who views the car as more of a curse than a gift, or they’re too tied up in the financial and political interests of our auto-oriented nation.

Now finally, how do we address this? We take a page out of our elders’ playbook and use it to our advantage.

Run for office, work your way up to the head of your state’s transportation department, piss people off – these methods always have and always will be the best avenues of change. Though it’s worth noting a fourth option is coming to light – climate change.

When Joe Senator wakes up in exurban Florida with his community largely underwater, soaring temperatures in the middle of December, and virtually un-breathable air because of excess carbon emissions – you can bet he’ll be singing a different tune about sustainability and the type of lifestyle their children are advocating for. Let’s just hope our elders either listen or get out of the way soon, allowing us to develop our future, as they were able to. Lest we witness some terrible Roland Emmerich film become reality.

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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