Has America Passed Peak Car Use, or Is It Just a Cyclical Decline?

Fast Company is the latest media outlet to trumpet the decline of driving, with a look at the phenomenon dubbed “peak car use.”

Are non-automotive modes squeezing out driving? The jury's still out. Photo: ##http://www.gizmag.com/volvo-s60-pedestrian-safety-system/13589/## GizMag##

In an article titled “We Are Approaching Peak Car Use,” the magazine examines an Australian study [PDF] which found driving rates are falling in a number of cities in Europe, North America and Australia.

Explanations include rising fuel prices, the increasing appeal of urbanism, and another interesting theory: that many urban areas have reached the limit people are willing to drive as part of their daily commute (about one hour).

The study authors conclude that traffic engineers need to change their models and rethink the assumption that traffic will increase annually.

Meanwhile, new data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics adds to the body of research about the decline in driving — but whether that amounts to “peak car use” is worth further consideration. The report shows a leveling off in vehicle miles traveled, beginning at the end of 2007.

Between 1980 and 2007, urban vehicle miles traveled increased 133 percent, or almost five percent annually. But from 2007 to 2009, urban driving held steady. The change in driving in rural areas was more impressive. Rural vehicle miles traveled declined four percent from 2007 to 2009 after increasing at an average rate of two percent annually between 1980 and 2007.

These numbers don’t point to a cause. But the decline in driving aligns pretty well with the greatest period of economic contraction in a generation. And driving declines have long been linked to recessions. Which leaves us wondering: Is the decline part of a lasting trend, or does it just reflect a cyclical pattern tied to the economy?

High unemployment is often cited as an explanation for decreases in driving. For example, when traffic fatalities declined nine percent last year, the Baltimore Sun called it the “recession’s silver lining.”

“The silver lining in any recession is a dip – and sometimes a significant dip – in highway deaths,” Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the paper.

And driving isn’t the only mode of transportation to diminish. Many transit agencies have seen a decline in ridership in recent years, even as gas prices climbed. High unemployment rates were widely blamed. LA’s MTA reported a three percent decrease from 2009 to 2011.

“Probably the biggest impact on our ridership right now is the economy,” Marc Littman, a spokesman for Metro, told the LA Times in April. “Until that improves, you probably won’t see an uptick in ridership.”

To the extent that declines in driving are tied to economic turmoil, they might be expected to reverse themselves just as quickly under different circumstances. But it’s difficult to isolate the economic factor from other theories about driving decreases.

An interesting case is that of the Pacific Northwest, where, arguably more than anywhere, transportation officials have taken measures to encourage transit, biking, and walking over driving. Traffic data has shown vehicle miles traveled in this region peaked in the early 2000s, prior to the recession. This is even more significant when you account for population growth in that region over the same period.

On the other hand, in more car-centric metros like St. Louis, transportation data has shown car use continuing to increase. Thanks to its sprawling freeway system, the St. Louis region added 36 hours per year to the average annual commuting time between 1999 and 2009.

Ultimately, only time will tell whether national declines are the result of peak car use or cyclical fluctuations. But some new research points to a promising trend. A report released by the Center for Clean Air Policy this spring indicated that beginning in 1996, US GDP began growing at a faster rate than VMT. That could mean that at the end of this recession — especially given its extremely disruptive nature — a different pattern will emerge, where the economy grows without an accompanying rise in traffic.

  • Flora

    I can’t speak for everyone, but among my friends (DC area, ages between 30 and 40) driving feels very much over.  For several years the feeling that it’s cooler to live in a place where you don’t need a car has been growing.  Sitting in traffic is a drag and we avoid it whenever possible.  Real estate is more important to us than what kind of car we drive (cars are SO OVER). Nobody wants to be a slave to a lawn or to have to fire up two tons of steel for every errand.

    $4/gallon gas has put the final nail in the coffin.  Driving feels like a dreary chore that we do only when we have to.  Even those of us who are stuck with car commutes long to switch to walking or biking to work.  In fact, one friend has done just that: took a 50% pay cut to switch from a high-end job with hideous commute in NoVa to working in a small college town that takes 10-15 minutes to drive across.  Car use has definitely peaked for us.  It’s hard to imagine ever getting excited about driving again.

  • vnm

    When the economy picks up again, the first thing that is going to increase is the price of gasoline. So VMT will not surpass recent peaks until the automakers perfect an electric car that is low cost and can go lots of miles. Which may or may not happen.

  • Ian Turner

    Presumably the way to analyse this is to examine not the amount of driving, but the amount of driving per job, or the amount of driving per unit of economic activity, or the amount of driving per hour worked. Any of those metrics, measured over time, should yield a more useful perspective.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve been following the EV industry quite closely since about 2003.  We’re just about there on the range.  We’re gradually installing Class 3 chargers which can charge an EV in about 30 minutes.  As for cost, if made in the same numbers as ICE vehicles, EVs will cost less.  They’re inherently far less complex.  They only cost more now because they’re made in very small numbers.

    EVs or not, I think driving has peaked.  Even if we get great EVs on the market, which I can say with certainly will happen, salaries are going down in real terms.  Car ownership is less and less affordable to the middle class.  I think that fact, combined with the fading perception of the car being a gateway to freedom, mean that this latest decline is part of a real long term trend. 

    As Flora more eloquently put it, “cars are SO OVER”.  I see plenty of buzz about bikes and high-speed trains nowadays, but more and more, cars are generating a tepid response, except among car enthusiasts.

  • q`Tzal

    You know its bad when Car and Driver magazine (http://www.caranddriver.com/features/11q2/the_state_of_the_union_s_roads_an_investigative_report-feature) posits:

    “… the roads they have cannot satisfy demand. So they must harmonize
    with other modes of transportation to reduce the stress on existing
    roadways as much as possible.
    We as a nation must make difficult, unpopular decisions about what to build, what to keep, and what to let turn to dust.”

    Whether all cities implement subways, light rail, BRT or PRT systems a more energy and cost efficient human and commerce transport system will come. The transport of physical objects (people and cargo) has much to learn from the transport of data packets on the internet.
    Despite that there will still be some descendent of the modern automobile (diesels, gas, electrics, landspeeder or flying car) that for some users the high cost of operation (energy and material costs) is less important than the strictest urgency of travel time. Police, Fire and EMS are the first to come to mind but over-sized cargo will likely require custom transport.
    Through all this we can expect that poorly trained drivers and unenforced rules-of-the-road will ensure that America’s road will remain our preeminent killing field.

  • Anonymous

    Compare with German cities now enjoying a robust export economy and demand for engineers to fill vacancies. See if their VMT is rising or staying steady with respect to their regional economic health, since they’ve already made some transit investment.

    That’ll give the US some idea of how much of its VMT decline is related to the economy & jobs, and how much of it is related to available highways to drive on. 

    If you find, as I suspect you will, that VMT is holding steady or growing slowly compared with their exports, that would suggest transit investments work…and may actually make their exports-driven recovery work.

    In short, “the car is peaked (if we really want it).” (because we value the other things we’d have to lose to build for more cars)

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