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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
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
Population adjusted driving is going down, down, down. Image: 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
Total miles driven by Americans has dropped 2.47 percent since 2007. Image: 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.

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