While the Economy Grows, Americans Continue to Drive Less

Americans have driven fewer miles per capita every year since 2005. Image: Doug Short
Americans have driven fewer miles per capita every year since 2005. Image: Doug Short

The last time the average American drove this little, Bill Clinton was president and Seinfeld was the most-watched show in the country. Not since 1994 has per capita driving been as low as it is now, according to new data from the Federal Highway Administration compiled by economist Doug Short.

Per capita driving has been on the wane for nearly nine years and now stands at 9.3 percent below the 2005 peak:

Population adjusted driving is going down, down, down. Image: Doug Short
Population adjusted driving is going down, down, down. Graph: Doug Short

The steady decline in the driving rate means that even as population increases, total motor vehicle travel has inched upward just 0.2 percent between March 2013 and March 2014. For five years, total driving has essentially flatlined, and in the last year Americans drove 2.47 percent fewer miles than in the peak 12-month period:

Total miles driven by Americans has dropped 2.47 percent since 2007. Image: Doug Short
Total miles driven by Americans has dropped 2.47 percent since 2007. Graph: Doug Short

That pattern represents a break from the upward trajectory of the past, in which miles driven steadily grew, closely tracking economic highs and lows. For years now, total driving has continued to stagnate even as the economy has recovered from a recession, leading policy experts to conclude that we are witnessing a long-term shift toward less driving, not just cyclical variation.

Unfortunately, state departments of transportation, for the most part, are still forecasting the imminent return of rising mileage. They’ve been wrong about that for a long time now:

Graph: SSTI

And that means we’re spending billions to build more roads and highways while Americans are driving less.

  • anon_coward

    i drive 3 miles a day, and even that is annoying

  • cjstephens

    While I’m happy that the number of miles driven is not going up, I still wonder at any graph, chart or statistic that claims that we are out of a recession. Employment numbers are still terrible, with thousands having dropped out of the workforce and never re-entering. Surely the employment rates, taking into account the shrinking workforce and growing rates of underemployment, are a better metric? It explains why fewer people are driving: they don’t have jobs to go to, and even if they do, they can’t afford cars or the gas to power them, even if the recession is technically over. Is it better for the environment if you stay at home e-mailing out resumes all day? Probably, but I have trouble calling that good news.

    Not that I’m bitter or anything.

  • Ian Turner

    The definition of “out of a recession” is that GDP is growing, not that things have returned to some previous peak. Nothing guarantees endless economic growth.

  • what_eva

    ^this. Recession has a very specific definition to economists, that being 2 consecutive quarters of shrinking real GDP. Nothing to do with employment or CPI or consumer confidence or any other indicators.

  • J

    I wish the first two graphs were done in a more legible manner. It’s not clear what the Y axis is supposed to represent. Instead, I’d simply make the Y-axis Vkm / million people, which should show the same thing, but it would be much easier to understand than a “population adjusted growth rate”.

  • Jeff Jacobberger

    Is much of this simply a matter of demographics? Much of the increase in per capita VMT up to about 2000 can be explained by increased female labor force participation rates, http://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/facts_over_time.htm#labor, and women catching up to men in drivers’ license rates. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/pubs/hf/pl11028/chapter4.cfm. As the huge Baby Boom cohort exits the workforce, we’d expect per capita driving to decrease.
    More women working = more driving; more old people = less driving.

  • geraldshields

    It’s called “We can’t afford cars anymore”.

  • Shale bubble is popping. Hard to say if the effects will show up this summer, fall, or next winter, but the decline rate for these kinds of wells is steep, so probably sooner rather than later.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-26/shakeout-threatens-shale-patch-as-frackers-go-for-broke.html

    US VMT per capita peaked in 2004, well before the recession, at 10,126 miles per person. (Slightly different date than the graphs above because D Short uses the 16 and over demographic, not total US pop.) Last year US VMT per capita was 9403. I bet for 2014 it will drop to 9300, and 2015 will be well under 9000.

    Interestingly, California, the supposed poster child of US driving, had a VMT in 2011 (latest date available) of 8621 per capita. Californians also used only 1.01 gallons of gasoline per capita per day in 2013 compared to the US average of 1.10 gallons per capita per day.

  • Komanoff

    Anyone know what are the percents lining the y-axis in the first two graphs? Yes, I see it’s set to zero for Jan. 1971, but I can’t figure out what the percents after that refer to.

  • Charles

    Although the economy is growing, the middle and lower classes are the throes of what may someday be termed a depression. That plus the demographic factors mentioned above, and maybe the Internet reducing the need or inclination to travel, probably mostly explains why driving is down.

  • Charles

    Percent change in per-capita VMT since 1971?

  • p_chazz

    The economy may be growing but the job participation rate is at an all time low.

  • Jame

    There were some new stats out about one of our transit systems, Caltrain. It has the highest per capita income in the region, for riders. And amazingly, 40% of riders were car-free. Even though average income is $117K, and it is basically commuter rail for the suburbs.

    So car affordability doesn’t really explain it either.

  • voltairesmistress

    I think some people are driving less while others drive ever longer commutes. Those driving less: teens on restricted licenses, the increasing percentage of the population that is over 70, and consumers shopping online. On the last item, brick and mortar retail chains are down 10% in foot traffic, even as their online sales boom. In other words, people have not taken to transit or living in cities, so much as they simply don’t go out as much or range as far from home, due to age and online options.

  • andrelot

    A better presentation would be set the level of 1971 at 100%.

  • andrelot

    Mane shale frackers are going bust because price of gas and oil extracted from there plummeted, in part for lack of capacity to transport it to export ports (something the Keystone XL pipeline would address, for the better and for the worse).

  • andrelot

    Your scenario might be playing out, but recession, at least in technical terms for official statistics, is defined as 2 or more consecutive quarters or seasonally-adjusted GDP contraction. It doesn’t mean it is the only acceptable measure on the state of economy, but it is a consistent one.

    This is like the discussion of “real unemployment”: there are several measures concerning the labor market (participation rate, underemployment rate, wage/GDP ratio, wage/productivity gain ratio, hours worked per capita etc), but the most commonly cited unemployment rate is narrowly defined as people who, having searched for gainful legal work within last 2 weeks, couldn’t find any.

  • Komanoff

    Right. Thanks much. (Agree w/ andrelot, below, too.)

  • Michael

    Or people, like myself and some others, have actually given up driving and moved to cities.

  • BlueFairlane

    A truth that nevertheless emphasizes cjstephens’s point. It’s silly to point out that the number of miles driven is falling despite the end of the recession when the definition of recession doesn’t include the factors that affect the number of miles driven.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    I think Google’s self driving car is betting that this decrease in driving is because people don’t enjoy driving as much as they used to. There was a time it was associated with freedom. Now it’s associated with pollution and work (and violence). I don’t know if self driving cars are the answer (not sure why Google is making sure they can’t be sued if the car runs over someone) but I’m glad America’s love affair with the car is coming to a divorce.

  • Citizen

    In metropolitan areas where a lot of new cycling infrastructure has been added, such as the Washington D.C. region, cycling rates have increased at a very rapid rate. Bike commuting rates nearly doubled in the first decade of the 21st century in that area. It’s not just people getting older or shopping online. More people are cycling, walking and taking mass transit. They are moving to walkable, bikeable cities that also have good transit systems.

  • Citizen

    But it’s not silly to point out that in many major metropolitan regions, bike and mass transit rates are up. The labor participation rate wouldn’t account for the increase in transit use and bike commuting rates in those major cities and regions.

  • voltairesmistress

    Yes, you have “given up driving” — a total solution, but you are very much in the minority, and probably only one small factor in the decline of the VMT. It is precisely this perception that VMT is most affected right now by new urbanites without any cars that I find unconvincing, and frankly kind of delusional.

  • craigpurcell

    Gov’t planning problematic

  • Bryant Taylor

    I’ve done the same. Been car free for a year now, and could only have done so because my area is developing a transit oriented development that makes it possible. Transit options are increasing and the number of users of those options with them.

  • dr2chase

    There have been more detailed studies, don’t recall the link, but the decrease is across all demographics.

  • shawtimothy

    Try biking it instead. Get your exercise, your commute, and fresh air in one fell swoop. 🙂

  • Sandra Sneden

    need to factor in the growing numbers of people who do a large portion of their work from home.

  • Avinash Tyagi

    May have to do with increased growth of urban population and apartment living, less need to drive.

    I know for the two years I lived in downtown Cleveland I drove maybe once a week at most

  • Dan

    The thing is, vehicle miles driven per capita might be lower than before, but the population is still increasing, and the absolute number of vehicle miles driven is flat. It’s not increasing anymore, but it’s not really decreasing either, and since highways operate on the basis of absolute volume instead of per capita, it’s still important to eliminate any existing bottlenecks in order for the entire system to operate efficiently. The good news is, that’s pretty much all that’s needed in terms of highway investment since traffic volumes are no longer increasing. There should be more focus on maintaining, rebuilding and modernizing existing highway infrastructure, and less focus on building new highway infrastructure.

  • dwpittelli

    “we’re spending billions to build more roads and highways while Americans are driving less”

    There’s not much point to this statement unless you can make a good case that we have too many roads for the number of cars. It will not be easy to convince the average commuter of this.

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