Still More Evidence We're Past Peak Driving

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 24, 2013

It's been a few months since our last people-are-driving-less post, but a recent article in the Washington Post blog makes the point again that Americans are driving less - with graphs!

Estimated Vehicle Miles Driven on All Roads, Population-Adjusted Cumulative Growth, 1970 - 2013 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
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.

See also:

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 13:34:24

Your soo wright Ryan im from the East coast and we do not have transit there even Halifax is not verry big on transit but everrywer other big citys poeples are going public service , when i came to Toronto in 94 i sold my car and i never locked back again then i moved her in Hamilton about 2 years later in 96 and still did not need to buy a car , if more poeples whould start using more transit are road and briges inferstructur whould last alot longer

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 14:52:08

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2013 at 14:59:23 in reply to Comment 88146

Interesting assessment, but I think there's an important distinction between peak car and peak driving.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 15:43:10 in reply to Comment 88147

No doubt. Which is why toll roads are an imperfect source of transit revenue.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 22:22:47 in reply to Comment 88151

Which highlights the need to look at a number of measures that could work together to generate transportation funding, not just one method.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 16:28:41 in reply to Comment 88151

Maybe I'm missing the point, but this should only matter if driving was actually low. Although rates of driving may be decreasing, in an absolute sense they are still extremely high in the GTA, which is why we have one of the longest average commute times in North America and are currently looking for ways to reduce congestion.

Congestion pricing and road tolls would be a bad idea if we were worried about the negative economic effects of people driving less, but its pretty well established that we are currently on the other end of the spectrum.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 16:45:23 in reply to Comment 88156

BTW, I'm not deluded about the state of roads in the GTHA. Obviously we're adding new drivers far faster than any benefit from the reduced VMT accrues.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 16:42:36 in reply to Comment 88156

It would be interesting to see what the urban/suburban/rural split on VMT would look like.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2013 at 15:45:40 in reply to Comment 88151

Every source of transit revenue is imperfect - but a road toll at least runs along the grain of declining VMT per person rather than against it.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 16:25:05 in reply to Comment 88153

Doubly effective in reducing congestion if VMT is already in precipitous decline, no?

I'm all for congestion pricing, but its very success would appear to eat into its revenues.

Again, not to say that we shouldn't implement it.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 16:37:09 in reply to Comment 88155

I'd say the decline is far from precipitous, and since less driving means less wear and tear on roads, as well as other costly externalities, the drop in revenue shouldn't be such a great cause for concern.

Comment edited by highwater on 2013-04-24 16:37:29

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 16:47:49 in reply to Comment 88157

You're absolutely right. I was distracted by the optics of the graph. It's only a correction of 1.25% per year.

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By PearlStreet (registered) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 19:46:44

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted April 25, 2013 at 00:02:47

Purely anecdotal, but I think worth mentioning -- read aloud a quote from Straphangerabout young people being less inclined to drive to my almost-eighteen daughter passing by, who responded "Well, duh -- lots of my friends haven't bothered, it's all too expensive."

None of the young people of our household who are old enough (and that would be 6!) are drivers. No doubt if any of them finds a need to do so, they will (like I did in my late 20's), but for now the cost-benefit analysis comes down in favour of not bothering with it.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2013-04-25 00:05:54

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 25, 2013 at 00:32:58 in reply to Comment 88178

It was too expensive when I bought a car and got my licence at 16, but not getting your licence was basically unthinkable in the GTA of the late '80s. Today, that no longer seems to be true. It certainly isn't for my 17-year-old and his friends: they're all pretty meh about getting a licence.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted April 25, 2013 at 05:11:36

Burlington Street just past Sherman is down to two lanes and no traffic chaos at all. It might be an interesting photo essay if you can catch the major shift changes at the steel mills.

Spelling edit.

Comment edited by mrjanitor on 2013-04-25 05:12:28

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