Where Is the Bottom? Americans Continue to Drive Less and Less

Population adjusted miles driven by Americans hit a new low in February. It's been nearly seven years since the peak in miles driven by Americans in 2005, and the downward trend shows no signs of slowing. Image: ##http://advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/DOT-Miles-Driven.php## dshort.com##

The downward slide continues.

Driving activity in America, adjusted for population, has hit a new low since before the economic downturn began. Doug Short, an independent analyst who evaluated data recently released by FHWA, finds that when controlling for population growth, it’s been more than seven years, or 92 months, since American driving activity last ticked up — a major break from historical trends.

The current per-capita reduction in driving has continued much longer than the longest previous period of contraction on record. The oil crisis of the 1970s and the stagflation of the early 1980s produced a decline in driving that took 61 months to reverse itself, again controlling for population growth. The current dip in driving rates has already lasted 50 percent longer than that. The average American is now driving as much as they were in 1995.

Adjusted for population growth, the recent decline in driving by Americans is unprecedented. Image: ##http://advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/DOT-Miles-Driven.php## Doug Short##

Short says the current decline doesn’t correlate very well to the price of gas. And it doesn’t conform very well to economic growth. Longer-term factors are at play, he says, including the growth in telecommuting, the retiring of the baby boom generation and, as noted yesterday by Brad Plumer in the Washington Post, a decline in driving among young people.

“There are profound behavioral issues apart from gasoline prices that are influencing miles driven,” Short said.

Both Short and Plumer highlighted research showing the average miles driven by young people — ages 16 to 34 — declined 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. Plumer ticked off a number of reasons why young people could be driving less, all of which have been amply discussed on this blog and in other forums on transportation policy. But one thing is clear: It’s not just because of the recession. As Plumer notes, even higher-income young people have been driving less and taking more trips by bike and bus. Among other possible explanations, cited by a U.S. PIRG report last year, are concern for the environment and increased connectivity through mobile devices.

These numbers — and the attention they’re getting from the mainstream media — underscore the fact that the dip in driving isn’t just wishful thinking on the part of transportation reformers. U.S. DOT officials assert that they’re paying close attention to this dramatic shift in how Americans get around, and are planning for the future accordingly.

27 thoughts on Where Is the Bottom? Americans Continue to Drive Less and Less

  1. I’ve looked at this subject a fair amount both in my professional life (I’m a newspaper reporter) and on my private blog.

    Car companies insist that a bit part of what’s going on here is that young people have not been getting drivers’ licenses partly because the just-leaving-college generation has been one of the worst hit in the recession. High insurance costs for younger drivers are probably also driving it. I wrote about it here (registration req’d): http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/192883ee-ac20-11e2-a063-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2RIxDOB3F and here: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/46f5d3d0-4be0-11e2-b821-00144feab49a.html#axzz2RIxDOB3F

    But I still, privately, have a feeling that there’s a bigger shift under way here. I think cities’ sprawl and the length of commutes became unsustainable. The trends are complex but there are a lot more people wanting to live in city centers.

    That’s why I concluded in a blogpost a little while ago that there was an irreversible trend under way away from cars and towards bicycles and so on: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-dead-mayor-live-cycling-boom-and-why.html This time won’t, I think, be like the 1980s, when Ed Koch was able to put in New York City bike lanes, rid them out a few weeks later and then try to ban cycling in the city altogether.

  2. Great post, Robert. I think you’re right: Research shows that there is a “sprawl wall” — people don’t want to drive a commute of more than half an hour each way. (Though god knows lots of people commute far more than that.) We’ve made roads bigger and faster, allowing that half-hour to take you farther and farther into the suburbs, but it may have gone as far as it can. There aren’t enough hours in the day as it is, to work and spend time with family and exercise and read the news and keep your house functioning and all those things we try to do in a day. Who would want to cram in more than an hour of rush-hour driving at the expense of all those other things?

  3. Good thing we keep spending the lion’s share of our transportation dollars building new highways and expanding capacity.

  4. Interesting observations.

    Modeling completed in support of examining alternatives for Chicago’s I-290 corridor relies on population forecasts and projections indicative of continued sprawl – they call it the market-based model. In modifying the region’s existing projections under-girding the award-winning regional comprehensive plan, GoTo2040, the state DOT explicitly rejected the notion that public policy and the investments we make can encourage more focused development. IDOT asserts sprawl is inevitable and uses that assumption to support the need for highway expansion.

    Meanwhile, the world around us is changing and there are a number of variables exerting pressure on the urban form and transportation decisions people are making – increasingly in favor of shorter trips and alternative modes.

  5. See here:

    Note Exhibit 22 on PDF page 21. It depicts differences between population forecasts under the regional comprehensive plan, the “Policy Based Projection”, and those the state DOT put together for their study aiming to expand I-290, “The Market Based Projection.” As you’ll note, the Illinois Department of Transportation represents that population will grow more rapidly at the urban fringe, and less rapidly toward the city center – through 2040, with no abatement in sight.

    Their proposed investments are based on the understanding that sprawl is inevitable and we must expand roads to support and encourage it.

    What is wrong with that picture?

  6. It’s not just Facebook, or smartphone apps making public transportation easier (something I have experienced). It’s new concepts like Zip Car, Cars2go, bike share, etc. that also help mitigate the down sides of divesting of a car.

    A cause for optimism!

  7. Exciting article! I wonder if we are perhaps feeling secondary effects of the recession, i.e., people not buying cars when they weren’t sure if they’d keep their jobs. While their fortunes may have changed, their behaviors have not?

  8. I think you’re right. I remember relatives who had lived through the Great Depression. Even though prosperous times eventually came, the hard times left their mark. People who go through very hard times know the times of prosperity are temporary. They use the times of plenty to prepare for the bad times. As a result, they *never* spent profligately. The great recession may not have been as bad as the last depression, but the fact is the majority of people who lived through it had never know anything even half as bad. They grew up in times of relative plenty, and they spent like it would last. Not so with prior generations (i.e. those who are about 70 and older now) who regularly had bad times. Depressions actually used to come pretty regularly, at least once a generation. Therefore, the memory was always there among the majority of the population that the good times wouldn’t last. Now that memory is ingrained in everyone. Those who are most affected by events like these are the young. Negative events shape them for the rest of their lives.

    Now how will this affect cars and driving? After their residences, people spend the most money on their cars. The young generation looking to cut costs will pick the most expensive items first, especially if they can do without them. Moreover, the young tend to be more flexible as far as cutting corners go. They’re willing to suffer more hardships if it means saving serious money. They also never became as dependent upon cars in the first place compared to the older generation. Bottom line-the older generation will slow down a bit as far as car purchases but probably not by much. Unfortunately for the car makers, this generation is dying off. Those under 50 are far more likely to either never buy a car, or just run their present car into the ground, then go carless. As the number who own cars declines, so does their political clout.This in turn gets more public support for initiatives which make it easier to live without a car. As we reshape society more and more towards public transit, walking, and biking, yet more people will be enticed to give up their cars. It’s basically what happened in reverse when we built a car-dependent society after WWII. With the institutional memory of this recession, plus the generally lower spending power of today’s youth, it will be pretty much impossible to entice significant numbers who don’t need cars to buy them. That’s especially true for those who never owned a car or had a driver’s license. Without these things, by the time you reach your mid 20s you’ve pretty much adjusted your lifestyle to being carless. No amount of clever advertising is going to convince such a person that buying a car will make their lives significantly better. We’ve even long passed the point where the guy with the fancy car gets the girl. Now a person who has a fancy car is more likely to be seen as broke from their car expenses.

    When you look at that chart, it’s obvious this dip is not a reaction to an economic event. The chart is starting to take on the classic shape of an item going from novelty to everyday use, and then eventually to technological obsolescence. Charts for the number of steam locomotives have a similar shape. For that matter, so would a chart for the number of incandescent light bulbs in use. In fact, in all cases the declines are much steeper than the increases. When an item reaches technological obsolescence, as steam locomotives did and incandescent light bulbs are in the process of doing, it really quickly goes from saturation to almost zero. Those who say our cities might be mostly carless by 2015 or 2020 may well be right on the mark.

  9. i car pool kids to daycare everyday, and 3 days a week i leave my car there and take the train to work. the other days my wife drives to work so i give her the car and take the train too. to drive into manhattan means i have to pay $400 a month to park there and i still won’t save any time in the commute. although i’ll probably start driving into manhattan on some mondays or tuesdays.

    in NYC all the big sports arenas are close to public transportation and the MTA is now working to have extra trains for events. unlike 30 years ago. why pay the $35 or whatever it costs to park there and then spend an hour waiting to get out of the lot?

    big picture, you have lots of kids graduating with lots of student loans. the car payment is going to Sallie Mae and the smartphone has replaced the Camaro as a chick magnet. but i think that give it 10 years or so the kids will start to get married and have kids and then its off to the burbs and buy a car. most schools in NYC are crap, except for the parts where you can’t see manhattan.

  10. Who likes to drive? Especially in this country, where the roads suck, and it takes forever to get anywhere. Unfortunately, since we don’t spend any $$ on alternative transportation, how are we getting where we need/want to go?

  11. It depends on how you build the suburbs and on whether you have a good regional transit system connecting with the suburbs. I have talked to people who told me they live in a “suburb” of Amsterdam but who do not have or need a car.

  12. I don’t think it’s just the gas prices. I know at least one person, single father, who can’t afford a car because of the insurance costs and another, who couldn’t afford the repairs. I know several who don’t want to deal with street parking and traffic or are simply afraid to drive because of all the idiot-drivers on the streets. Living without a car is actually a lot less stressful for many people in large cities. Too bad the pro-car lobby is still so strong, because I’m sure that a lot more people would be happy to dump their cars if the mass transit and bikeways were significantly improved. I would. I keep my car only so I can get away from the city on weekends to ride my bike upstate. Lucky for me I can afford it. Riding to Grand Central and taking a train is a waste of time.

  13. I am amused by the car review articles in Consumer Reports and other media. One quality they rate is by what degree the car is “fun to drive”. Here in the LA area, “fun to drive” is an oxymoron and has been for a long time.

  14. That’s true of any large city. In fact, things are so bad you often can’t even bike as fast as you want, never mind drive a car fast enough “to have fun”. That’s true in NYC not only in Manhattan, but even the outer parts of the outer boroughs where I live. I ride after 9 PM for a reason. It’s the only time I can pretty much bike unfettered by anything except my own physical limitations.

  15. I happen to think you’re right, although maybe the huge drop off might not occur as soon as 2015, but certainly by 2020. The shape of the curve is looking more and more like other curves I’ve seen for things which have entered technological obsolescence. The drop off is MUCH steeper than the rise. It’s already starting to look that way. It took 10.5 years to go from 1995 levels to the peak in the middle of 2005. We’ve dropped back down to 1995 in a mere 7.5 years. It even looks like the rate of decrease per year is accelerating.

  16. $4.25 Minimum wage could buy almost four gallons of gas in 1995. $7.25 minimum wage could buy just above two gallons in 2013. Just looking at prices, you can see a large drop off as making sense.

  17. I hope you aren’t serious. I think the lion’s share should go into improving mass transportation. Fifty people in a bus or a rail car removes 50 cars from the road… or maybe 25 or 20, if you think multiple car passengers. But that’s still a lot less congestion and pollution.

  18. Would I pull the wool over pretty BlueEyes?

    Yes, I injected just a little sarcasm into that post.

    It was a poke both the existing 85/15 split of federal funding in favor of highway expenditures, as well as the fact that my state amplifies the problem through an arbitrary “geographic equity” formula that sends 55% of federal funding into far less populated areas of the state rather than investing it where it will generate the greatest return on investment (and thus more for every part of the state through state).

  19. The article already stated that there was a poor correlation between gas prices and per-capita driving, though the correlation coefficient was not stated.

  20. I think mobile devices don’t merely substitute for car driving (or any transportation). Just board any bus or train here in the SF Bay Area, and you’ll see it’s packed with people texting, tweeting, etc. I think one strong effect of mobile devices is that they are simply more useable on a transit vehicle than in a car. It’s one thing to yakk on a phone while driving, inadvisable though that be. It’s another to text or Facebook behind the wheel. I’m putting my money into restaurants that don’t need two-handed utensils (such as Asian ones with chopsticks) – since when I view young people at restaurants, they are staring at their phones full time even as they’re filling their mouths and even when they are with others (who are also deep in their phones)… the preference amongst these people is to keep the phone in one hand at ALL times. Missing one tweet about somebody’s lunch or whatever could ruin your entire social standing.

  21. You are right. Poll after poll has shown that Americans want more trains, particularly. Now anti-transit forces say that just means people want OTHER people off the roads so they have more room, they like the “idea” of transit but not to actually ride it themselves. While there is truth in this notion, I think it’s exaggerated, basically a Fox-News level of analysis (i.e., totally biased towards one’s advertisers’ interests – facts begone). The reality is that for most Americans, transit works so poorly that it’s not a real option. Even here in San Francisco, with its decades long “transit first” policy, transit still has only a 25% mode share – but that’s 10 to 20 times what it has in many places. Suburban land use will NEVER be well-served by transit, it’s just poorly set up for it – expecting such would be like expecting cars to work well in water.

  22. There is an ancient contradiction between those who want more services and those who want low taxes. Americans go for low taxes every time (except for war, where the Republicans suddenly don’t care about the budget). The good news is that this has hit the road system badly, but unfortunately Congress has simply transferred general fund revenues to the bankrupt Highway Trust Fund. Naturally, this provides ammo to those who (correctly) say the car is the most subsidized transport mode of all, to answer the anti-transit folk who claim transit is “socialism”. Yet, when you bring up this point, the anti-transit types simply deny it. You can point them to the budget websites, but they just refuse to move. Or they say that it’s OK for the general taxpayer to fund roads, because “everybody” drives (their drinking buddies in other words), or anybody who really counts, or we all get products delivered by truck; but subsidizing transit particularly rail is “socialist” because it gives benefits to people the whiner doesn’t like. That’s America.

  23. Hi Charles! I know you lol. You can have a good “regional transit system connecting with the suburbs”, but you will never have a reasonable mode share. Your point though about how you build the suburbs matters – an Amsterdam suburb is nothing like Walnut Creek, which even has a BART station, but which probably has a 1% transit mode share – and if you count linked trips so you don’t count cases where people drive to BART, it’s probably even lower. I think however the current (like MTC’s Plan Bay Area) attempt to retrofit transit and ToD into the suburbs will fail miserably. We need more cities like SF (and the high property prices there provide market proof that we do), not suburbs where by spending billions on lightly-used transit we improve mode share from 1% to 3%.

  24. The problem you cite is very ground into the American political structure, in which rural states (e.g., the “welfare-hating” red states) get subsidized by the blue. In which every state gets 2 Senators – Rhode Island and California both. Many other aspects as well cause the urban population to have way less actual power than the suburban or rural in terms of garnering funding.

  25. Welcome to Peak Everything.

    The VMT decline is not about young people texting (or texting while driving), it’s more because they cannot afford cars or if they have cars they cannot afford to drive as much.

    Looking at VMT and energy for the past four decades finds a very close correlation. There was a VMT drop after the 1973 oil embargo and then again at the 1979 gas lines. Not a surprise.

    “It’s really hard to come to terms with the number of corporations, government agencies, consultancies, civil service departments and politicians who seem incapable of comprehending a trend break or trend reversal. Collectively they would have been incapable of working out that the wheel may change transport.”
    — Euan Mearns, June 11, 2008

    Peak Energy (electricity and liquid fuels) in the US was 2007

    US energy consumption data from http://flowcharts.llnl.gov Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

    Peak Electricity in the US was 2007

    Electricity data from Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy

    Peak Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US was 2007

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


While the Economy Grows, Americans Continue to Drive Less

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 Fuzzy Math in the Road Lobby’s Memo to Congress

Don’t know what to make of the news that U.S. driving rates have dropped for the ninth year in a row? Looking for guidance about whether your state or city should be wantonly expanding roads or investing in transit, biking, and walking? The road lobby thinks you should turn to them for independent, unbiased analysis […]

Arizonans Driving Like It’s 1994

Here’s more evidence that there’s a shift underway in how Americans get around: The Arizona Public Interest Research Group has released a new report [PDF] showing that residents of this sprawling Sun Belt state are driving less and taking transit more. Between 2005 and 2012, the average number of miles driven by each Arizona resident […]

More Evidence That Unemployment Doesn’t Explain the Decline in Driving

For those who say driving rates will pick right back up again when the economy’s really humming, here’s something to chew on: In a report released this morning, “Moving Off the Road,” U.S. PIRG presents further evidence that unemployment rates and driving rates have changed independently of each other. Transportation reformers have made the case that there […]