Is the American love affair with the automobile over? Total miles driven in the United States peaked in August of 2007, then dropped during the recession and has leveled off since then, though the economy is growing slightly and the population is increasing. The Federal Highway Administration just reported that miles traveled during the first six months of 2013 continued the trend, being down slightly from 2012.
Individual miles traveled actually peaked in 2004, at about 900 miles per driver per month. By mid 2012, that had dropped to 820 miles per month. Per capita automobile use is now about where it was in the late 1990s. Until then, driving mileage generally tracked economic growth, according to U.S. Transportation Department economists Don Pickrell and David Pace (PDF presentation here). Since the late 1990s, though, the when the economy has grown, it has grown more rapidly than car use.
Meanwhile, the percentage of young people in their teens, 20s and 30s that don’t have driver’s licenses has been growing leading some to suggest that getting a driver’s license is no longer the American rite of passage it once was.
Researchers are divided on the reasons. One group blames the economy. Another group says that financial matters are a factor but that there are fundamental changes going on in how Americans see the personal automobile. In some urban areas a car is seen as more of a headache than fun.
Lifestyles are changing. People do more shopping online. Social networking is replacing in person visits with friends. Public transit, biking and walking to work are said to be on the increase. Pickerel and Pace say that these popular explanations do not necessarily match the data.
Demographics are also a factor. For all of the emphasis on younger drivers, baby boomers are exiting normal peak driving years between the ages of 45 and 55, also peak earning years. “They are still the dominant players, and they are moving toward a quieter transportation lifestyle,” Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America, said.
There is also a gender gap. Men generally drive more than women and now there are more women than men in the U.S. who have driver’s licenses. Also male employment was hard hit during the recession, and driving closely tracks to employment.
In any case, many economists say that a large number of Americans, especially teens and young adults, simply can’t afford to buy and insure a new car.
The driving decline has public policy implications. Less driving means less federal and state gas tax revenues, but it also means fewer resources need to be allocated to road building and maintenance.
We apologize for the shaky video. Unfortunately the DoT’s Volpe Center did not put it on YouTube or provide embedding code, so we had to do a screen capture and the results were not ideal. However, the information in the presentation is worthwhile so we put it up.