By on March 12, 2009

Apologists for business-as-usual in the car game often took to blaming unnaturally high gas prices for last year’s trends towards smaller car sales and fewer vehicle miles traveled. When gas prices go back down, went the argument, Americans will go right back to buying thirsty SUVs and Crossovers and driving more miles. Not true, it seems. The New York Times reports that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has declined for 14 months in a row now, despite the fact that gas prices are now hovering at about half of their peak levels from last June. “When the decline in American driving was first identified in late 2007, fuel prices were beginning to increase. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the drop was due to increased fuel prices,” says Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration which monitors traffic on America’s roads. The FHA estimates that VMT has declined by 115 billion miles in the period between November 2007 and December 2008.

Economic decline is being blamed for the driving decline as recession was likely setting in around the same time that gas prices started to increase. The American Public Transportation Association shows a steady increase in public transportation ridership since the beginning of 2008, particularly in the first three quarters of 2008, when 3.42 to 6.52 percent more Americans took the bus. Ridership actually declined in the fourth quarter of 08 as job loss took its toll on public transportation riders, 58 percent of whom depend on the service to get to work. And despite having had one non-causal explanation for lower driving (high fuel prices) levels debunked, the FHA is running with the latest non-causal explanation predicting that Americans will rush back to their cars as soon as the recession is “over.” “When people have a job to go to,” says Hecox, “the decline in American driving may fade into the nation’s rear-view mirror.” Unless it doesn’t. In which case a new easily-understood reason is sure to emerge. Meanwhile, what happens if people get used to not depending on cars?

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11 Comments on “Lower Gas Prices Don’t Inspire More Driving...”

  • avatar
    John Horner

    LOL, OMG, WTF. Brilliant! You have just hit on the perfect new model naming scheme for Buick!

  • avatar

    As usual, people look for a single explanation when The Truth About X has several roots.

    It seems evident that reduced driving miles/smaller cars is a combination of recession, high fuel prices, social pressure (SUVs are no longer ‘cool’), expended demand (everyone who wants a Hummer H2 now has one), and probably several other factors.

  • avatar

    I don’t get the point of this. $4 gas and recession were both causes of the decline in VMT. Think of it this way — in a booming economy, people would suck up and pay the $4.50 gas. But as things started to look a bit grim economy-wise, those $50 fill-ups start to add up. The two factors work together.

    Let’s note that Mr Hecox is a shill for tolling. Everything he says is meant to denigrate the gas tax and replace it with expensive and wasteful toll booths. Guess what’s down more than VMT on free roads right now? Toll booth revenue.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Transportation costs are usually among the top three expenses for folks between the ages of 18-45 (before colleges and health care come into play).

    I believe a lot of folks are migrating to a more cost focused model of car ownership. Part of it has to do with the job losses, the finance issues, and the fashion of the times. But I also believe that certain segments of the market are indeed getting a bit smarter about the way they spend their money. They have no choice of course. But there are some unusual unintended consequences.

    For example, it’s now extremely hard to get a good cheap car at the auctions these days. More times than not, the $1000 car of times past is now selling wholesale between the $1600 to $2000 mark. There are also fewer of them around since most dealers and individuals are electing to keep them instead of using the selling price as the basis for a financed purchase.

    Most of these folks are looking at minimizing auto expenses… or at least trying to fool themselves into being frugal.

    It’s unfortunately not just a ‘recession’.

    A lot of automotive costs are now shared. You have young people moving back in with their folks, and as a consequence of that the extra car is no longer needed or even wanted.


  • avatar


    Don’t fall for the NY Time’s shoddy reporting. Truth is VMT down 1.6% is UP more than 3% from this summer. Assuming this rate of driving continues, VMT will be UP by 3-5% once we lap the $4.00/gallon gas peaks.

    The economy slowing is bad for VMT, but lower gas prices = more miles driven, always was, always is. As for mass transit – if it is more easy than driving, people will us it. If it isn’t, they won’t. The ridership numbers are cost per trip between driving and mass transit speaks for itself. Mass transit has a return on investment that makes GM look like Warren Buffet …

  • avatar

    No job, no commute. It ain’t complicated.

  • avatar

    We have longer memories than the MSM gives us credit for.

    The limit was $4/gallon. That spooked people, and will continue to spook them for a long, long time.

    We’re probably moving back to a 1980s-style oil glut caused by conservation.

  • avatar

    There are two separate issues here: a return to SUVs and the number of miles driven.

    In terms of SUVs, I’ve seen a lot more on the road. As is 5x as much as I used to. Big ones too. Usually carrying the stereotypical soccer alone driving alone. But whatever. For the type of driving I do, they get about the same MPG (around 16-18). However, I don’t think SUVs sales are coming back anytime soon.

    In terms of VMT, couple subpoints. First, it is a flawed measurement. They just measure congestion at 1000+ points and track it. Second, as a rough guide, I suspect that it is right: people will drive more when gas is $2 rather than $4. However, BUSINESS traffic (and commuting) is way down. Conversely, long distance road trips may be up. Finally, I suspect the reporting is short term and as caranddriver22 says, compared to this summer VMT is up.

    My usual roads are 3x more crowded than they used to be. The sooner we get a $1 federal gas tax the better. Yes, it will hurt at the pump. But better than paying a bunch of canadians. Roads will be less congested. Air will be cleaner. And oil will be $200 again — just a question of when.

  • avatar

    To the NYT:

    It’s the economy stupid.

  • avatar

    I know a lot of people are just waiting for gas prices to jump back up and are not believing that the current gas prices will be a long term trend. That would go a long way to explaining why cars (when they do sell) are selling more than a large truck or SUV that is no longer needed.

  • avatar

    A colleague of mine, a car guy (who won’t buy any foreign makes – he says “American cars are defined for him by where the HQ is”) is dumping an S-10 pickup and buying a new leftover 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS turbo. He’s spending somewhere south of $18,000, I think.

    His brother-in-law sells Chevies at the local stealership and offered him a nice lightly used 2008 Impala SS V8 for less money. He was tempted and when he spoke to me about it I said 2 things.

    $4.19 per gallon.

    Wrong wheel drive and torque steer.

    He laughed and said – yep. Not a chance. He’ll take the HHR.

    Locally, the Kia dealer is (supposedly) knocking off $6000 from the price of $19,800 left-over 2008 Kia Rondo wagons.

    Personally, I’d buy the car from the manufacturer likely to survive (Kia), especially considering the 28% or so discount…. (the dealer way overstocked – still has 65 cars left, is selling about one per day, if their website count is to be believed).

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