Special Report: Walkable Streets

We Are Already Well Past 'Peak Driving'

If we truly seek a prosperous future, it lies in a real commitment to revitalized urban centres that set us on a path to economic sustainability and social inclusion.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 06, 2014

In April 2013, I wrote about a report by transportation analyst Doug Short on the US government's Traffic Volume Trends Report, finding that per-capita driving in the US peaked in June 2005 and had been in decline ever since. Notable was the fact that the peak happened two or three years before the Great Recession hit, and driving did not rebound with the economy.

It's taken me a few months to circle back, but Short published an updated analysis a year later that found the trend of declining vehicle miles driven continues. As of March 2014, vehicle miles driven per capita in the US has declined to the same rate it was in December 1994 - two decades ago.

Per Capita Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads by Americans 16+ Years in Age, 1971-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
Per Capita Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads by Americans 16+ Years in Age, 1971-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)

Short uses the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statics' Civilian Noninstitutional Population age 16 and Over to accurately compare total distance driven to the population of driving-age Americans.

This is Different

This is a big deal. The past decade is the first period in which a decline in miles driven has not been connected to a recession. Previous dips correlated closely with recessions (marked in grey on the chart), and driving bounced back once the recession was over.

The previous big dip in driving began in May 1979 with the second OPEC oil crisis and the recession that followed. Per-capita driving returned to the pre-recession level 61 months (just over five years) later, a period that spanned not one but two major recessions.

This time around, we are 105 months (almost nine years) past the last peak in per capita driving and the subsequent decline has not even flattened, let alone bounced back.

Short also calculates per-capita vehicle miles driven using the total population of Americans, on the argument that at least some driving is comprised of people who have licences driving for people who do not, for example children and seniors.

Per Capita Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads by All Americans (Image Credit: Doug Short)
Per Capita Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads by All Americans (Image Credit: Doug Short)

The result is similar using this broader population baseline: distance driven peaks in June 2005, flattens until the recession, then declines steadily thereafter, right through the recession and post-recession recovery.

Even if you just consider the total vehicle miles driven without controlling for population, the absolute peak happens in 2007, declines during the recession and then flatlines for the next four years. Again, this is without taking into account the steadily increasing population of Americans (both driving-age and overall).

Total Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads, 1971-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
Total Vehicle Miles Driven on All U.S. Roads, 1971-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)

Some of this decline is attributable to gasoline prices. Following shifts in the price of oil, gas prices dramatically increased starting around 2000, peaked in mid-2008, plummeted by the end of that year as the economy crashed and then bounced back in 2010.

U.S. Vehicle Miles Driven and Gasoline Prices, 1990-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)
U.S. Vehicle Miles Driven and Gasoline Prices, 1990-2014 (Image Credit: Doug Short)

Gas prices have remained high and volatile since then, reflecting the fact that the age of cheap, abundant, ever-growing oil supplies ended around the same time that vehicle miles driven peaked.

The long run-up in oil prices is surely a significant contributor to the decline in driving, though Short gives it rather short shrift. However, it seems clear that a persistent high oil price is only one component in a perfect storm of economic, demographic and cultural changes that inveigh against driving.

Senior Citizens

Demographically, the populations of most mature liberal democracies - including both the U.S. and Canada - are aging. The Baby Boom generation is transitioning into old age, and senior citizens will make up a progressively larger share of the total population over the next few decades.

An individual's annual driving tends to peak in the late 40s and decline steadily thereafter into old age. In addition, the percentage of people who drive at all begins to fall steadily in the 70s as health conditions, medications and cognitive declines make driving unsafe.

A new cognitive test administered to Ontario drivers age 80-plus will likely further reduce the number of seniors who are able to drive, especially as average life expectancy continues to rise.

Seniors on fixed incomes who must drive to get around find that transportation takes a bigger bite - around $8,000 a year to own and operate a car - out of their budgets.

Even worse, seniors who live in car-dependent neighbourhoods but can no longer drive have great difficulty aging in place. They are more socially isolated, have fewer contacts, make fewer appointments - including medical ones - and are less physically active.

The result is lower quality of life, higher morbidity and worse health outcomes.


On the other side of the driving cohort are Millennials, the generation of roughly 80 million American teens and young adults born between the early 1980s and late 1990s who will drive the economy over the next few decades.

Millennials tend to be comfortable with technology, highly networked, more pragmatic than ideological, and willing to move to a city that provides them with the quality of life they seek.

Millennials are the most educated demographic in history - particularly as many have stayed in school rather than try to find a job in the rough labour market that followed the Great Recession. They are also far more likely than previous generations to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses.

Millennials tend to want to live in places with better public transit, better bike lane networks and more walkable streets.

Put simply, Millennials do not want to have to rely on owning a car. They define "freedom" not as car ownership but rather as access to a variety of options for getting around. This is the first generation in a century that regards a car as an expensive burden rather than a rite of passage.

More than half of Millennials would consider moving to a different city if that city provides a better mix of transportation options. Similarly, Nearly half of Millennials who do own a car would consider getting rid of it if their city provided good alternatives.

Missing Out

We are in a remarkable moment in modern history in which both the wealthiest generation (Boomers) and the generation with the most life-long economic potential (Millennials) have a shared interest in moving into urban environments that provide diverse services in close proximity, as well as great transit and public spaces designed for active transportation.

As long as Hamilton continues to pin its hopes on yet another new highway as our economic salvation, we risk missing out on this demographic one-two punch and losing out on a generation of new businesses and net new job growth.

That is not even to mention the sheer fiscal unsustainability of continuing to build out low-density, car-dependent suburban developments that generate less property tax revenue than they cost to build and maintain, inexorably accumulating unfunded infrastructure debts.

Accommodating universal driving has always been a fool's errand for cities. Some people simply cannot drive - people with disabilities, people on low incomes, all children - and a city that expects everyone to drive will inherently fail to accommodate such people properly.

Even among people who can drive, a city designed around the expectation that most people will drive to most destinations is necessarily a place that flings destinations apart, squeezing out the choice to walk or cycle and starving public transit of resources.

Such a place has more air pollution - in Hamilton, more than half of our air pollution comes from tailpipes - and less physical activity. It has more obesity, more heart disease, more diabetes, more hospital visits and more premature deaths. It has more people mangled and killed in vehicle collisions.

Ironically, cities that spend the most money trying to accommodate driving also have the worst traffic congestion. Thanks to induced demand, simply building new lane capacity actually generates more and longer automobile trips, which fill up the new capacity and leave people stuck in traffic.

Over the longer term, adding lane capacity drives private investment into automobile-dependent land use that locks people into the very travel patterns that create traffic congestion.

The opportunity cost of all this money sunk into road infrastructure includes foregone opportunities to build transportation infrastructure - like light rail transit - that drives more healthy, compact and cost-effective land use and reduces time spent stuck in traffic.

If we seek a prosperous future, it lies in a real commitment to revitalized urban centres that generate new employment opportunities, reduce our per capita infrastructure costs, increase our per capita tax assessments, attract young people who demand a high quality of life, allow seniors to enjoy independence and social connectivity, and set us on a path to economic and social prosperity.

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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He 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 DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted August 06, 2014 at 18:21:01

I guess I'm a millenial (born in the early 80s).

I'd gladly trade my car in for public transit, if: - I could easily get from home to work in the same time frame as my current drive; - I could easily get things like groceries, small purchases, etc., home without feeling like I'm going to drop everything (not to mention convenient stops to get on and off) - It was clean, safe, and efficient - It is reasonably priced - I can get from my home on the mountain to Ancaster, Dundas, Stoney Creek, Burlington or other nearby cities easily

When that happens, I'll listen. Till then, I'll continue to drive.

I also have to ask - the price of gas fell after the OPEC crisis in the late 70s. Gas prices haven't in the past few years - was just thumbing through some old receipts and we haven't been under a buck a litre in years.

I found this interesting graph, showing actual prices of gas since 1920 to today, as well as adjusted for inflation. There's other factors than just "people don't want to drive".


Taking it from 2007 to today, is this: http://www.gasbuddy.com/gb_retail_price_... Would love to overlay the following things to see where we go:

  • Miles driven
  • Number of vehicles on the road
  • Population (licensed drivers)
  • Total amount of miles of road
  • Price of gas
  • Number of new homes built

I think it might show some different results. But we get it, you don't want us driving and all hopping on LRT to get where we need to go.

Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2014-08-06 18:22:38

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 09:30:22 in reply to Comment 103769

That's the goal of the city's BLAST plan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BLAST_netwo... which includes LRT lines connecting the areas you mention, combined with all-day GO rail and improved buses. I hope you have written to council strongly supporting this plan.

The other point is that the urban form changes in response to the transportation network: a city well-served by frequent high quality transit clusters services, employment and entertainment so that you don't have to drive half way across the city to go to a restaurant, buy groceries or hardware.

Of course, some trips (buying bulky goods, going to the countryside) always make more sense to drive. The point is that the modal share between walking, cycling, transit and driving will shift so most people drive less. Now, like you, most Hamiltonians rely on their car for the vast majority of trips (more than Toronto, for example).

Don't forget that Hamilton has even been chronically under-investing in its bus network for the past 25 years. Massive cuts were made in the late 80s early 90s and we have never recovered the service levels of the 80s, despite the growth in population. Imagine if we had closed roads and drastically reduced maintenance 25 years ago, and still had fewer lanes than in the 1980s but had built the BLAST network and had all-day GO service ... do you think people would still prefer driving?

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-08-07 09:41:59

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2014 at 12:11:38 in reply to Comment 103785


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By AP (registered) | Posted August 06, 2014 at 19:57:09 in reply to Comment 103769

I don't think anyone is suggesting that a decline in driving means any one person will never drive anywhere; instead, it reflects the idea that of a person's daily get-around, more trips are being taken via non-car modes than before. I can personally attest to this: I prefer to walk or bike, and have set my life up where most trips can be made in these modes - but I still drive certain places or for certain tasks on a regular basis. A one car family plus a CarShare membership is working well. But, yes, we would do well to keep the challenges you highlighted in mind as we work to improve our infrastructure over time.

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By son of toronto (anonymous) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 00:59:40 in reply to Comment 103771

Why this page want to screw up the good thing in Hamilton. Traffic is a good thing in Hamilton. Look at Toronto, subways, buses and streetcars are all over crowded. Congestion happens even on the subways, buses and streetcars. Traveling in Toronto is so stressful, expansive and take forever to get where you want to go. In past 5 years, every single weekend subways has been closed for maintenance. I have been living in downtown Hamilton only for 4 months, but love this city. So relax, hope they don't build a lots of condominiums then desperate for money to build subways like Toronto.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 10:58:54 in reply to Comment 103778

Traveling in Toronto is so stressful, expansive and take forever to get where you want to go. In past 5 years, every single weekend subways has been closed for maintenance.

And yet millions of people do it every day in Toronto, but in Hamilton far fewer.

We can talk about lots of different reasons why Toronto has congestion but the #1 reason is that there are lots more people in Toronto who want to get around than there are in Hamilton. If Toronto congestion were such a detriment, people would be leaving the city in droves - but instead, its one of the fastest-growing cities in N.A. Apparently the congestion is worth it.

So relax, hope they don't build a lots of condominiums then desperate for money to build subways like Toronto.

In other words, you hope that Hamilton continues to under-perform economically and that people continue to not really want to buy condos in Hamilton and that it continues to fail to meet its infrastructure maintenance budgets for the sake of... easy driving? Makes no sense to me.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted August 06, 2014 at 19:24:54

I'd written a longish comment, but realized that recommending 'Straphanger' by Canadian author Taras Grescoe made more sense. The book provides some nice illumination of some of the points that Ryan has raised in this piece.

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By Jim Street (anonymous) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 10:55:47

Straphanger is a great book. Follow the author on Twitter - he is always highlighting amazing things happening around the world.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted August 07, 2014 at 13:26:47

I'd love to see specific stats for the petrol-state known as Canada.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 10:41:19

Another point that tends to get forgotten in the gentrification discussion is that in most cases the buildings we're talking about have been empty above the ground floor for decades. This was true for many of the buildings on James and along King St in the Gore.

These empty buildings were not providing accommodation to anyone and the resulting decay lowered property values to the extent that even partly occupied buildings were not maintained and became dangerous for those few people living there.

As Ryan points out, no one should be forced by economic circumstance to live in dangerous (mostly because of traffic) unpleasant neighbourhoods with few job opportunities and services.

The most successful strategy to help successful desirable cities remain inclusive is to insist on a proportion of geared to income and social housing, either publicly or privately built and managed (e.g. 20% as in France . And, of course, to have high quality social service and education opportunities.

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By no. (anonymous) | Posted August 09, 2014 at 21:58:27 in reply to Comment 103811

"no one should be forced by economic circumstance to live in dangerous (mostly because of traffic) unpleasant neighbourhoods with few job opportunities and services."

Proof please.

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