Demographics, Land Use, and Transportation

 By David Bonk
David Bonk, long range and transportation planner for the Town of Chapel Hill, presented the following information as a Chapel Hill 2020 Special Topic on Jan. 19 in the Council Chamber of Chapel Hill Town Hall. To view the online video of this presentation, visit  

Changes in the age and composition of the American population, coupled with the impacts of the collapse of the national housing market and accompanying economic slowdown, are projected to have significant impacts on the North Carolina, the Research Triangle Region and Chapel Hill. While growth in Chapel Hill has historically been affected by a unique set of factors, including the influence of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina Hospital system, the Town is not immune from the impacts of national demographic changes.

When we discuss the larger issue of demographic change we refer to specific generations, defined by their birth years. Looking forward over the next 10 to 15 years two generations, Baby Boomers and Millennials or Gen Y, will play a central role. The dual impact of the continued retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, those aged 46 to 64 in 2010, and the transition of Gen Y, those aged 18 to 33, into the job market will create challenges and opportunities for every community, including Chapel Hill.

Between 2010 and 2020 the largest segments of the Baby Boomers, those born in 1957 through 1962, will join their older counterparts in retirement. Some of these new retirees will choose, for a variety of reasons, to age in place, while it is estimated at 1/3rd will downsize from their current home. Part of that downsizing will also result in migration from one area of the country to another. The mismatch between housing demand and supply in specific states, regions and communities will have an impact on future growth. It is anticipated that the nature of housing desired by retiring Baby Boomers will need to be walkable, reflecting concerns about health and mobility. National survey data suggest that these retiree’s are seeking housing that is integrated with retail and service activities and provides access to public transit services. These surveys also indicate that cost of living and access to healthcare are the most important considerations for relocation.

Gen Y’ s transition into the work force will be accompanied by a change from renting to ownership, although Gen Y appears to be delaying both marriage and purchasing homes compared to previous generations. Coupled with the desire of some retiring Baby Boomers to rent rather than own, the construction of rental units is expected to represent a significant portion of new construction. From the data available about Gen Y’s preferences it appears they also value compact, walkable communities that offer convenient access to goods and services. Survey results indicate that two-thirds of Gen Y think it is important to live in a walkable community and one-third would pay more to be able to walk to shops, work and entertainment. More than one half of respondents would be willing to live in a small unit if it provided close proximity to shopping and work.

The impact of these preferences by both the Baby Boomers and Gen Y will be felt in North Carolina for a number of reasons. North Carolina has become the new “Florida” for many retiring Baby Boomers. From 2000-2010 North Carolina experienced the highest percentage increase of people aged 65 or older in the nation. Although the growth was substantial the impact of the peak birth years in the Baby Boom cohort, 1957 and 1958 have yet to be felt. Between 2010 and 2010 those 65 or older is projected to increase by 38 percent in North Carolina.

So what does this mean for Chapel Hill? The Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which prepares population and employment projections for use in the development of federally mandated regional transportation plans, has projected that the Orange County population will grow to 197,675 in 2040, up from 134,325 in 2010, representing a 1.3 percent annual growth rate. That represents a population increase of approximately 63,350. Between 1900 and 2010 the historic annual growth rate for Chapel Hill has been approximately 1.5 percent. If the 2010 population of Chapel Hill continues to grow at a 1.5 percent rate we can expect the 2030 population to be approximately 77,000, or an increase of 20,000 residents.

Issues of growth and the impact of demographic change are important considerations in the development of the 2020 Comprehensive Plan and decisions about the location and appearance of future growth will be addressed in the coming months as the process moves forward.

David Bonk began work with Chapel Hill in 1985 as the Town’s Transportation Planner. He represented the Town in the development of regional transportation plans, provided planning for the Chapel Hill Transit system and participated with other Town staff in the preparation of the Chapel Hill 1988 and 2000 Comprehensive Plans and subsequent small area planning. In 2005 he was appointed Long Range and Transportation Planning Manager, responsible for coordinating long range land use planning with ongoing regional and local transportation planning. Recent projects have included the 2008 Northern Area Task Force and 2009 Rogers Road Small Area Plans and the 2009 Long Range Transit Plan. Bonk has undergraduate degrees in political science and history and a master’s degree in public administration from Western Illinois University.


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