Estimated Vehicle Miles Driven on All Roads, Population-Adjusted Cumulative Growth, 1970 - 2013 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
The analysis, prepared by researcher Doug Short, uses monthly traffic volume data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It indicates that American driving grew steadily to a peak in mid-2005 (note the width and depth of temporary dips after the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks), after which it has fallen steadily. Adjusted for population, American vehicle-miles driven have fallen to the level of January 1995.
This appears to be an epochal shift rather than a cyclical decline; and it is, of course, entirely consistent with several other recent measures of driving, which all indicate a peak around 2004/2005 - i.e. years before the Great Recession began - followed by a steady decline.
The decline seems to be sharpest among young drivers, who have been undergoing a persistent demographic shift away from the culture of suburban living and ubiquitous driving. A study by the Frontier Group finds:
The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita - a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting - even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons - higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y's values and preferences - all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.
The decline in driving among young people is not restricted to young people with limited economic prospects. Even among young people who have jobs and live in affluent families, the rate of driving has been declining.
Owning a car is no longer associated with "freedom" - quite the opposite, as many young people regard cars as a burden and a nuisance rather than a vector of liberation.
This shift has huge implications for our transportation policies, which continue to assume endless growth in driving and allocate scarce public resources accordingly. As the Frontier Group report concludes:
America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people - and Americans overall - throw that assumption into doubt. Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America's current transportation policy - dominated by road building - is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans. It is time for policy-makers to consider the implication of changes in driving habits for the nation's transportation infrastructure decisions and funding practices, and consider a new vision for transportation policy that reflects the needs of 21st century America. [emphasis in original]
The last thing we should be doing with public resources is to squander it on last-ditch efforts to perpetuate the unsustainable legacy of automobile infrastructure for a few years longer, whether through heroic highway construction projects or legislative efforts to artificially reduce the cost of driving.
The sooner we adjust our plans and shift our resources to land use and transportation systems that better reflect these emerging patterns of living and moving around, the less traumatic the shift will be for everyone.
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