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It's Not The Economy After All: Americans Began Driving Less In 2004


Per-capita vehicle-miles traveled & GDP, from a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group

During the Great Recession, researchers noticed a curious trend: Americans were driving less. Analysts devised numerous theories linking the economic downturn to our driving habits, but according to a recently published study, the two have very little to do with one another. 

The study was conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan consumer-interest organization. The PIRG has published its entire report online (PDF), but for those in a hurry, we've pulled out a few of its intriguing high points:

In the U.S., driving peaked in 2004, long before the Great Recession. At that pinnacle, Americans were putting 85% more miles on their odometers than they had in 1970.The total number of miles driven has remained flat since 2004, while the driving population has continued to grow. As a result, the number of miles driven per capita has actually fallen. Use of mass transit has increased 10% since 2005. (Not coincidentally, we would add that car-sharing options like Zipcar and Relay Rides have grown exponentially during this same stretch of time, aided by smartphones and the mobile web.) For decades, road travel moved in lockstep with gross domestic product: when the economy faltered, travel did, too, and vice versa. As you can see from the graph above, though, that's no longer the case. The change can be traced back to 2004.The Great Recession may have played some role in shaping America's new driving habits, though it likely just accelerated a change that would've happened anyway, thanks to Millennials. For a host of reasons that we've covered before, Millennials are driving less often, and when they do need to get around, they're less likely than their elders to hop behind the wheel. (Intriguingly, the study found that Generation X has cut back on its driving, too.)Beyond that, many factors -- changing ideals in city planning, eco-friendly public attitudes, the cost of gas (both financial and political), and the rise of the internet, to name a few -- have made car ownership less desirable.And if you take away nothing else from this report, take away this: "The Driving Boom—a six decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States—is over. Americans drive fewer total miles today than we did eight years ago, and fewer per person than we did at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term. The unique combination of conditions that fueled the Driving Boom—from cheap gas prices to the rapid expansion of the workforce during the Baby Boom generation—no longer exists. Meanwhile, a new generation—the Millennials—is demanding a new American Dream less dependent on driving."

The report proposes three likely scenarios for the future: a return to near-normalcy, an ongoing shift in driving attitudes, or a continued decline in vehicular travel. According to the U.S. PIRG, "Regardless of which scenario proves true, the amount of driving in the United States in 2040 is likely to be lower than is assumed in recent government forecasts. This raises the question of whether changing trends in driving are being adequately factored into public policy."

To their credit, car companies appear to see the writing on the wall. Many are diversifying their lineups, and some are looking closely at alternative business models. Clearly, the future of car sales and ownership will be radically different from how it's been in the past. The question is: which car companies will survive the shift?

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