It’s Not the Economy, Stupid: Americans Really Are Driving Less

Economist Joe Cortright compared growth in miles driven per capita before and after five recessions. He found that, unlike in the past, drivers are logging fewer miles, not more, during this economic recovery. Image: ##http://usa.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2012/11/Green-Dividend-VMT-slides.pdf##Joe Cortright/CEOs for Cities##

Since 2005, Americans have been driving fewer miles each year. While the shift predated the onset of the Great Recession, the question of whether the decline in driving marked a sea change in the way we get around or simply reflected a drop in economic activity has been a matter of considerable debate.

Enter economist Joe Cortright, who took a closer look at American driving patterns following the last five recessions. The results, which Cortright discussed during a panel at last month’s National Association of City Transportation Officials conference, point to the emergence of fundamentally different American travel behavior.

Looking at the periods before and after the last five recessions, Cortright charted vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita in the United States on a monthly basis, indexing the last month of each recession to zero. In four of the five recessions, driving was either increasing or stagnant in the two years before the economic slowdown, and it quickly picked up steam during the recovery.

The only exception was the most recent recession, which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. Before the recession, driving per person was dropping. After the recession, driving continued to fall. In other words, Cortright says, the recession has little to do with what is actually a long-term trend.

“As the recession ended, driving continued to decline,” Cortright said. “And the reason is the increase in gas prices.” In the past decade, he noted, the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline has tripled.

But pocketbook concerns aren’t the only factors at work. There is a generational shift, as well. Cortright pointed out that the drop in driving is particularly pronounced for people in their teens and twenties. Today’s teenagers are getting their licenses later than previous generations, and young people are increasingly opting to live in cities.

In neighborhoods within three miles of a central business district, the population of college-educated 25-34 year olds grew 26 percent since 2000 — twice as fast as in the rest of the metropolitan area, according to a report Cortright authored for CEOs for Cities. Many people who might otherwise live in the suburbs are choosing instead to live in places where they can get around by walking, biking, and taking transit.

Put together, these economic and cultural changes are leading to less driving — and this trend shows up in more than just the federal VMT data, Cortright explained. He looked at data from Inrix, a private firm that monitors and predicts traffic flow, and found that congestion in U.S. metropolitan areas has been dropping as well.

“The recession has been over for three years and driving continues to decline,” Cortright said. It’s a fact that Congressional leaders can no longer afford to ignore as they prepare to draft the next surface transportation bill.

Filed Under: VMT

  • Larry Littlefield

    “But pocketbook concerns aren’t the only factors at work. There is a generational shift, as well. Cortright pointed out that the drop in driving is particularly pronounced for people in their teens and twenties.”

    Who are poorer than previous generations.  They had to lose something.  Square footage of housing and number of vehicles had gone up a lot the prior 30 years, and are a prime possibility.

  • James

    It’s not all about being poorer than past generations — it’s more about the fact that walkable communities offer a better quality of life, improved health and are more environmentally sustainable in the face of dramatic global warming.

    Young people are exercising their independent agency to drive less — this situation is not being forced upon them.

  • Joe R.

    I agree with James. It’s not just about the money. It’s that it really stinks having to get into a car to do literally anything. I love being able to walk to stores. Saving the costs of car ownership is just the icing on the cake. The recent storm and gas shortage here just underscores how bad it is to be dependent upon a form of transportation which in turn is dependent upon regular supplies of fuel coming in.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not just young people. Lots of people over 30 would jump at the chance to live in walkable neighborhoods. Problem is that they are few and far between and they aren’t cheap due to the high demand. 

  • ubringliten

    Car sales have gone up this year but I hope drivers still drive less.  This could mean that gas is not the only denominator because if people drive less to save money then why would they be buying newer cars.  If you’re going to drive less, then a new(er) car wouldn’t make sense unless it is breaking down.  The car sales are up because people would like to have cars as status symbols, toy, etc.

  • Anonymous

    It’s amazing how people can draw such vastly different conclusions from one piece of data. Did you guys see this condescending NYT op-ed a while ago that presented the stat on new driver’s licenses as evidence that young people are basically too lazy these days? Like there’s no other possible explanation: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/opinion/sunday/the-go-nowhere-generation.html

  • *Young person in their early 20’s speaking here!* I don’t drive or have a license because when I can get around just fine on bike/transit for most of my trips, it just seems like a waste of money to add the expense of motoring. I used to want to drive (cause my mother talked about it as a rite of passage) but I realized that it’s not environmentally sound and too much of a burden. Do I want to drive when I am older/have kids/have well-paying job? No, I’d rather live in a neighborhood where car ownership isn’t necessary– I don’t want a suburb. For all the short-comings of transit in LA, I still find it manageable most of the time.

  • Ian Turner

    Would be more interesting to do a scattergram comparing employment to driving, either on an absolute or % change basis. Isn’t this the jobless recovery?

  • bwi

    Young people are concerned about zombies.  Bicycles are the proven best method of zombie evasion.  Ergo.

  • Phineas Baxandall

    Great post!

  • Rosenber-g

    The demographic living near CBD is temporary – so long as they are single).  Once they pair and have children they move away from the CBD where they are more family oriented amenities, larger homes and typically better schools. 

  • Ihavealongguy

    When you have kids, have a full-time job, can afford to live without roommates, and are in a relationship, you”ll realize that the neighborhood where car ownership isn’t necessary is either: (1) filled with a demographic that you’re no longer aligned with, (2) cost prohibitive, (3) lacks space for you and a family, (4) lacks decent schools, (5) is not where you job is located, (6) and available in very few cities, Use Vancouver BC, Boston, Philly, San Francisco, Seattle etc as an example- walkable cities that fall short or are problematic in every area I list. I agree that living in or around the CBD is a temporary situation until the economy changes and people flee to the suburbs with affordable, spacious homes with good schools, and new amenities that are clean.

  • Ihavealongguy,

    A lot of what you said is subjective, so I won’t try arguing with you.

    However, personally, I don’t want to be in the CBD. Thankfully, in many major cities the neighborhoods are quite walkable within a 10 radius of the CBD. Los Angeles is filled with lots of neighborhoods where car ownership is not necessary, in part due to historic trolley influenced development. At about 7 or 8 miles from downtown LA, Eagle Rock is an excellent place to raise a family, and it happens to be rather walkable and hospitable to car-free residents.

  • Anonymous

    I live in a former streetcar suburb now served by buses that connect to TRAX (SLC) Light Rail. Many shops and groceries and an 80 acre park. Great location. I haven’t owned a motor vehicle for over 5 years.

  • Urban planning has been either an afterthought or non-existent in major cities.  A neighborhood where people can walk/bike to most all their needs could be reality for many more if cities actually gave a crap about this sort of thing.  Instead we ended up with interstates and sprawl.   I commute via mass transit every day to work, but my ex-wife and kids live somewhere where it is not practical to get there except by car.

  • I know several couples in their early 30s that had children (while living in the City) and moved out to the suburbs because they thought: “That’s what you do. . .” They have since RETURNED to the city because their life in the suburbs was “uninspiring.” This is a cultural shift. Those who don’t recognize it now will be damaged financially, emotionally, etc.

  • William Draves

    Co-author Julie Coates and I first discovered the data in the DOT’s 2010 travel survey. Originally covered by Advertising Age, then our Kiplinger interview got big play in the media.  We predicted this in our 2004 book Nine Shift.

    It IS a generational shift, but also 100 year shift. The reason why younger people are not driving is that they are, and will be, making their living on intangible products. They are “knowledge workers,” and time is so valuable they cannot afford to be driving 25% of their productive time.  Trains are also safer and don’t destroy the environment, but saving time is the underlying reason for this change. 

  • Joe R.

    Very true about the time savings factor. For all the talk by some people about how they love driving, the fact is more often than not it’s a tedious, repetitive, boring chore, particularly if you do it when everyone else is. It makes a lot of sense that the next generation of workers will want to avoid doing this mind-numbing task for 2 or 3 hours per day. Moreover, unlike commuting by bike, you’re not even getting the side benefit of exercise.

  • Anonymous

    Really this is not a mystery.  In 1991, I could gallivant around the country working on a minimum wage salary.  Gas was cheap and teenage jobs were plentiful.  Nowadays?  Gasoline costs $3.50 a gallon and youth unemployment is in excess of 25%.  Did any teenagers just joyride for the hell of it when gas was $4.00 a gallon?  I think not.

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