By on October 5, 2020

North America has changed immensely under the pandemic. The government tested what it could get away with under the premise of health-and-safety-related lockdowns; countless small businesses have gone belly up while larger entities seem to be thriving. Meanwhile, we’ve been informed that nature is returning to urban environments as humanity forced itself to stay indoors. Waters cleared, the air was purified, and animals ventured deeper into our territories while we sheltered in place. It was if Homo Sapiens had finally been demolished, providing Mother Earth a prime opportunity to patch herself up.

For a time, there was even a period where you could enjoy open, nearly enforcement-free roadways. Some cities, including mine, saw traffic declines in excess of 40 percent during the opening weeks of the virus response. While this ended when New York City brought in those temporary (and wildly unpopular) quarantine checkpoints at major crossings and attempted to open up for commerce, it still seems like far fewer individuals are driving overall.

That’s because there are. People just don’t need to venture out of their homes as much in 2020 and it is not just the lockdowns contributing to this change. Ordering items online has played a major factor, as does the increased reliance on at-home entertainment. In fact, a new study has suggested Americans may never drive as much as they did just a decade ago. This seems especially likely with so many companies encouraging office-based employees to continue working from home indefinitely, flushing millions of daily commutes down the proverbial toilet.

It sounds like something we should be upset about but, so long as vehicle ownership doesn’t become a national taboo, there’s really not much to gripe over. A little less traffic would go a long way to improve one’s ability to enjoy traversing an urban landscape and paying for gas is far more enjoyable when it’s not being burned for mandatory journeys. But it’s not just cities that saw reductions in traffic this year.

Bloomberg has been piling up studies showing just how much time and energy has been saved on the road through 2020, estimating the national vehicle miles traveled went down 41 percent from February to April on a seasonally adjusted basis. While that number has come back up in recent months, the Federal Highway Administration reported July’s vehicle miles were still down 13 percent (seasonally adjusted) from February.

From Bloomberg:

Driving will surely creep closer to its pre-pandemic level as Americans return to their offices this year and next. But it may never quite get there. A study this summer by accounting and consulting firm KPMG forecast that vehicle miles traveled will settle at about 90 [percent] of pre-2020 levels in coming years. On a per capita basis, they were down 5 [percent] from their all-time high in the mid-2000s even before the pandemic. Driving in the U.S. would seem to have peaked.

The reasons for this decline are straightforward. More and more people have been doing their jobs from home — and getting their entertainment and buying things there as well. (Yes, the goods people buy online are delivered in vehicles, but on balance this still results in fewer miles traveled than if everybody shopped in person.) These trends, which began with the arrival of widespread broadband internet access in the early 2000s, had been gaining strength in recent years. The pandemic has accelerated them.

We have previously noted that there’s been an uptick in those interested in owning a vehicle as fears of contagion relating to mass transit increased. Urbanites (especially those born in suburban or rural areas) are likewise alleged to be fleeing cities in droves in 2020 — though many claim this phenomenon is being overstated in the media. But the above, in conjunction with Bloomberg’s own admission that “car-dependent suburbs” have been growing faster than cities since 2016, makes it seem like vehicle growth is assured.

The outlet cast some doubts on those facts production stronger vehicle sales, however, as did KPMG’s own study. It claimed that the lessened need for driving would ultimately lead to vehicles needing to be replaced far less often.

“As a result, we estimate that total U.S. [vehicle miles traveled] could drop by 140 billion to 270 billion miles per year,” the consulting firm wrote in its assessment. “The first-order effect would be a reduced need to own a vehicle and lower demand for new and used cars. We estimate that car ownership could fall from 1.97 to as little as 1.87 vehicles per household. That may not sound like much, but it could translate into 7 million to 14 million fewer vehicles on U.S. roads.”

“That’s enough to reduce the number of cars needed across the U.S. by up to 14 million per year, which would have widespread impact on the automotive industry and beyond — lower car sales, fewer replacement parts and aftermarket sales, lower gas tax receipts for states, etc.”

As a necessary counter, KPMG said the automotive industry would have to pivot focus on work and delivery vehicles — calling it a positive and indicating who this report was written for in the first place. But it stopped short of calling this scenario a sure thing and admitted that electric power trains, vehicle connectivity, and autonomous control could throw a wrench in present-day employment and production practices. It’s operating under the assumption that COVID-19 has forever changed the way the world functions, noting that it’s uncharted territory.

If KPMG turns out to be incorrect, then vehicle ownership and the total miles driven should gradually creep back up closer to normal. But we’re figuring that’s going to be long time off and presumably unlikely. Larger companies are already finding that it’s cheaper to let people work from home and the current recession seems guaranteed to suppress new vehicle sales for the foreseeable future. Even if society ultimately tells the “new normal” to take a hike, it definitely won’t happen overnight.

[Image: F11photo/Shutterstock]

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38 Comments on “Study: U.S. Driving Distances May Have Already Peaked, What About Ownership?...”

  • avatar

    Car ownership will decline, I think. Where both parents were doing commutes, now one or zero of them will. That means the average household in the US needs at least one less car.

    Car sharing whatever startups will be deleted. It’s not safe.

    Rental car market will consolidate.

    Prediction: Recreational vehicles, boat sales, and home improvement/building soar sky-high for foreseeable future as people now spend 95% of their time and money in and around their home.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m curious to see this play out. I think driving less is a given for near term. I think car sales will flatten or fall a little. Actual ownership may take a while to fall. With things like ride share dying off I see more people keeping cars long term for occasional trips etc. In places like NYC parking kind of eliminates this as an option but in smaller cities sometimes it doesn’t. Also with RV and boat sales come pickup and SUV sales. The used market for pickups and SUV’s is insane right now. I assume it’s not just RV’s but also a lot of contractors I talk with are overwhelmed with work booked by people working from home and stimulus checks for down payments.

      Also not sure if supply or demand is driving it more but dealer inventories near me are low. The luxury makers seem to have normal levels but the Toyota and Honda dealer have half empty lots.

      As always Human nature is not always predictable.

    • 0 avatar

      I think as long as people live in car-dependent areas, the formula of 1 car per adult in the household will remain. Even if you don’t have to commute, it’s utterly miserable to be trapped at home because your one car is out at the moment.

  • avatar

    A lot of people will be working from home at least part of the time, sure. And that’s the people who even still *have jobs*. Unemployed people won’t be commuting. There are a lot more of them now than there were a year ago, and it’s likely to be that way for some years to come.

    All things being equal, less driving is good. Mindless churn from place to place for no good reason is bad for the environment and for people. I hope that purposeful driving can continue with reduced traffic getting in the way. I think we could cut out more driving than we even have so far.

    • 0 avatar

      The idea of the vast majority of people getting a vehicle to drive, all at the same time no less, to an office just to sit in front of a computer all day never made any sense to me. The only good to come from this whole virus mess is maybe, just maybe corporations will finally start letting people work from home as part of normal business. When the internet became popular in the early ’00s part of the concept was you could just work and shop from home.

      The pains of commuting become especially obvious if you have ever worked off hours. I can get to my office in 20 mins as long as I’m not doing it between the hours of 7-9AM and 4-6PM. If not my time is doubled. If its raining add another 10 mins. 90% of the nearly 200 people in my office have no reason to be in the building aside from collecting their free coffee and playing Monday AM quarter back. Only 10% are truly essential workers that have physical tasks to complete.

  • avatar

    one contrary statistic is that people, at least for the near term will drive rather than take crowded public transit. Ride Sharing could be in trouble, as are taxis.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    As stay-at-home has become a way of life for us, my EV has become the only vehicle we’re using 95% of the time. My wife takes it during the day for this or that, and I’ll take it to the office for the odd visit I must make.

    This has pushed the driving miles on the EV back up near pre-COVID levels, but our van sits quietly for long periods of time now. This suits me just fine, as I’m hoping to stretch out its life. I think we’ve bought only 1 tank of gas in a couple months.

  • avatar

    With all this being said, in my neck of the woods, Northwest Ohio (Toledo and environs), I’ve noticed that in the past few weeks, the freeway congestion seems to be ramping back up compared to when I started back into the office in late August. Not quite back to pre-‘Rona, but as to another point in the article, a good portion of the increase seems to be semi trucks.

  • avatar

    I think ultimately car ownership declines no matter what. A truly autonomous car that can show up when you call it will kill personal ownership….someday.

    I also think there are too many factors at play. While those working from home may grow, urban sprawl will also grow as people flee the congestion of large cities. Perhaps cancelling each other out.

  • avatar

    Personally we have cut back 50% on driving. Sold our 3rd car (a minivan) back in August and have not missed it yet. Will likely rent one next time we do a road trip. If kids had been in school we would have kept it.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    How about an article for us who aren’t driving much and vehicle maintenance?

  • avatar

    Must be why I only have 6k miles on a 10k/yr lease, we even went to Florida in Dec. ( from Tennessee )before covid hit, not much driving when your retired and staying home except the Home Depot/grocery store! I gotta get an EV in 2 years!

  • avatar

    I have told myself for a long time that if I did not have a regular commute, I would likely own a *nicer* vehicle optimized for road trips. (So if the working-from-home trend holds, I could see some households purchasing very nice vehicles which aren’t tied to a commute.)

    If I were independently wealthy with no regular commute, I would own:
    a) A vehicle optimized for road trips.
    b) A vehicle optimized for pleasure drives and/or track days [think Ariel Atom].
    c) A vehicle optimized for hauling (and towing).

    (I understand that some people enjoy tracking their daily driver, but for me there are too many compromises both ways.)

  • avatar

    “Ordering items online has played a major factor, as does the increased reliance on at-home entertainment.”

    – Recently I have been ordering a *lot* of things from Amazon which I would’ve bought in person in the past (ex. four 18-pound bags of charcoal dropped on my porch for roughly the same price as going to the store)

    – A year of Motor Trend On Demand is only $23.99 (currently re-watching vintage Wheeler Dealers)

    • 0 avatar

      “four 18-pound bags of charcoal dropped on my porch for roughly the same price as going to the store)”
      You really know how to beat up those Amazon delivery drivers ;-)
      I ordered a watch battery from Amazon after Walmart said they couldn’t replace mine since I didn’t buy the watch from them! Instead of driving around town searching for one I ordered it off Amazon costing only $1.50 including prime shipping, installed it myself!

  • avatar

    I see a split coming. Some people will say “since I’m not commuting every day, why worry about fuel economy?” and buy something bigger and/or more powerful.

    Others will say, “since I’m not commuting every day, what do I need a car so fancy and comfortable for?” and downsize to an errand runner.

  • avatar

    “animals ventured deeper into our territories”

    What animals? It is criminals ventured deeper into our territories. Even in places which until recently considered safe. It is time to stop commuting and start fortifying our homes and vehicles. Good grenade launcher will never hurt.

    • 0 avatar

      “Good grenade launcher will never hurt.”

      As if a good grenade launcher could ever hurt:-) It also might be useful for protection from the mystery “vaccine” for this plandemic. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine discusses how to make sure everybody gets the “vaccine” using whatever degree of coercion necessary. We are supposed to ignore the fact that there has not been anywhere near sufficient trials of the “vaccine” to even begin to assure it is safe and just line up like good little boys and girls and roll up our sleeves. The question I have is: Will they give us a lollipop after they shoot us, er, uh, I mean, give us the shot?

      • 0 avatar

        Unfortunately vaccines are another thing that has been idiotically politicized. Countries that have not made a mess of SARS-COV-2 due to politics will fare better. I read that in the USA a bit over 50% will get a vaccine if cheep enough. You need 60 – 70% to get herd immunity. The vaccine when thoroughly tested and deemed safe should be free to everyone.

      • 0 avatar

        Unfortunately vaccines are another thing that has been idiotically politicized. Countries that have not made a mess of SARS-COV-2 due to politics will fare better. I read that in the USA a bit over 50% will get a vaccine if cheep enough. You need 60 – 70% to get herd immunity. The vaccine when thoroughly tested and deemed safe should be free to everyone.

  • avatar

    An observation I’ve had is that drivers have gotten dumber, pay even less attention than before and are far more erratic. It’s gotten so bad in my corner of Minnesota that I’ve bought myself an inexpensive dash cam to protect myself from these people out wandering around.

    While I recognize this is anecdotal, I’d be curious if there are numbers to back it up.

    • 0 avatar

      To be good in driving you need to practice everyday.

      • 0 avatar

        Today I drove from the north of NYC burbs, across Long Island, to the Hamptons….AM rush hour.

        Traffic has definitely come back … it isn’t the wide open spaces, even in NYC, it was back in May….

        The traffic mix has changed…all those folks who need to physically go to work still are. The managerial/executive folks aren’t. I admit I’m stereotyping by car, but the high end motors, the big Germans, Range Rovers, etc are gone, the Sentras, Rogues, and grinder GM cars are still there.

        Off peak, people are driving like absolute morons. The early AM commuter run was OK, steady traffic running 70-85 on highway, but the mid day run back had clumps doing 10 under the limit (clear dry day) and three across lockstep driving over and over. This is worse than before, no idea why.

        Personally, I’ve gotten my home computer network perfect, installed some outside lights, and cleaned up a corner of the yard that needed it for years…if I can’t go on vacation….

  • avatar

    One thing countering the less driving trend is that people are very warry of mass transit right now. Trains, buses and subways have seen much greater ridership declines than have cars.

    All in all, reducing total miles traveled would be a good thing. Less wear on the roads. Less pollution. More ability to enjoy it when we are out driving.

    • 0 avatar

      jthorner – to your point – I don’t regularly get to the heart of downtown Chicago (ie The Loop). I had to meet some people to go to a construction site last Friday morning, in the heart of rush hour (I had no problem getting downtown during rush hour, unlike pre-‘Rona days). I was standing on Wabash Street, with the L-tracks above me, and was shocked to see train after train rushing by with virtually no passengers on them.

  • avatar

    “It was if Homo Sapiens had finally been demolished, providing Mother Earth a prime opportunity to patch herself up.” What is that supposed to mean? Demolished? That statement suggests that humans are somehow not part of this world. We are just as much a part of nature as any other living thing on Earth. So ridiculous.

  • avatar

    I haven’t cut my driving. And guess what, I’m driving a big gas guzzling pick up. hehehe But then I haven’t been living my life in fear.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      You either own the company, have an outdoor job, or else you work in the White House.

      Every other place I know of has some restrictions in place that would have altered people’s driving habits.

      Since you’re not “living your life in fear”, I hope you’re true to that conviction by not wearing seat belts, crossing streets without looking, spending more than you earn, and ignoring the service recommendations on that big gas-guzzling truck. You should definitely not change the oil or check the tires.

      Avoiding consequences is for the fearful – not you.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Exercising caution by avoiding large crowds and wearing a mask is not fear. This is a pandemic not a mild case of the flu. As for driving less I have been doing that for a number of years working telework and by combining trips and reducing unnecessary trips. I am driving even less with Covid-19 but that is a good thing since my vehicles will last longer and require a little less maintenance. I have also ordered more things on Amazon just for the convenience and time saving. I do not own any large trucks or gas guzzlers so saving gas is not a huge priority nor is the cost of gas. I did buy a used 2008 Ford Ranger in late June before the prices of used vehicles began to really skyrocket.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Lou_BC–Agree vaccines along with face masks have been politized. Common sense has become a political issue as well. A virus does not know a person’s political persuasion, race, sexual preference, or religion. A virus is just searching for a viable host in which to enter and thrive. Agree a vaccine should be free for everyone especially in a pandemic.

  • avatar

    On a per capita basis, you bet, this has been the kick in the ass that telecommuting needed. It was also a kick in the ass from Amazon to a couple hundred thousand brick and mortars that they hadn’t managed to put out of business yet. Even as social life returns nothing is going to replace those miles.

    But in the big picture per capita driving was already going down. Growth is coming from the unending flood of new capitas coming here. We’ve picked up 80 million people, the demographics of whom will depress you, since 1990. You think promising them free health care is going to slow that down?

    Mumbai, here we come.

  • avatar

    Our driving hasn’t changed much. My wife was already work at home and I have to be at work. We still need to get groceries but now have them brought out curbside instead of going through the store. We already bought a ton online.

    We don’t eat in at restaurants like we used to, but some days you just have to go for a drive with the top down and wind in your hair.

  • avatar

    The Los Angeles basin traffic is getting heavier and heavier, what concerns me the mist is the incredible increase in stop sign runners, usually at 50 + MPH .

    I’ve been riding my Moto a lot more and enjoying it, just thus morning a non mask wearing mouth breather zipped right in front of me ~ I slow way down for all intersections now .

    I’ve finally gotten my little Ranger trucklet sorted out (Bilstein shocks & new tiers) so I’m putting more miles on it and enjoying it greatly .

    It’s a cheap truck, made mostly of tinfoil so if I get hit, I’ll surely die .

    SWMBO is still driving to the store now and then, she doesn’t like mornings and tends to go during the busiest part of the day (?! WTH?!) .


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