Will 2013 Continue The 7-Year Downward Trend In American Driving?

by Justin Horner, via NRDC’s Switchboard

Predictions and prognostications are the stuff of the New Year–and why should driving trends be any different?  Will 2013 see a continuation of what has now been a nearly 90 month drop in population-adjusted Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT)?

The safe answer, of course, is “well, we just don’t know” (or, “we just don’t know until Nate Silver takes the questions on”).  In fact, the most recent data from the Federal Highway Administration’s Traffic Volume Trends Report (October 2012) shows an uptick in total VMT of about 0.6% over October 2011, with small increases in every region of the country, save the Hurricane Sandy-impacted Northeast.

Yet, it is unlikely that many of the broader factors that have led to VMT declines stark enough to give birth to the notion of “peak car” will be changing in any significant way in 2013.   In November of last year, the International Transport Forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development held a round-table on Long-Run Trends in Travel Demand.   The panelists focused on just these demographic, behavioral and long-run economic factors, the trends that have the greatest impact on driving demand in the coming years.

True transpo geeks will want to read the reports for themselves, but I’ll outline some of the most interesting tidbits here.  First, some of what we would call “good news:”

  • Total US driving hit its peak in 2007. Since then, average annual VMT growth has been -0.5%, while average annual population growth has been 0.8%.  Per capita VMT in August 2012 was about the same as it was in 2004;
  • Obviously, certain age groups drive far less than others: kids can’t drive, working adults with families drive the most, and some seniors shouldn’t be driving at all (if you ask me).   In the coming years, then, as Boomers retire, they will drive less, and as Millennials enter their prime family and employment years, they’ll drive more.  Yet, at least in the early years of the 21st Century, we’re seeing that every age cohort drove fewer miles per capita in 2008 than they did in 2001;
  • Younger Americans (aged 16 to 34) have made even more significant changes in the way they travel.  Between 2001 and 2009, they cut their per capita VMT by 24%, took 16% more walk trips, 24% more bike trips, and travelled 40% more on public transit;
  • The number of licensed drivers in America is barely growing: Every age group under 50 has a smaller percentage of its population licensed in 2010 than in 1983. For the first time in American history, women with licenses outnumber men.  Women do drive less, drive more slowly and more safely (as if you needed me to tell you that).

Among the explanations for these changing driving patterns?

  • You can’t drive without a car, so, not surprisingly, vehicle ownership has been a prime driver of VMT growth.  Yet vehicle ownership is unlikely to grow as “there is near saturation of vehicle availability for the able-bodied adult population.
  • The post-1950 VMT surge was accompanied by historically unique workplace trends and income growth. A growing number of women workers needed to drive to get to work, and  family incomes grew steadily, particularly from low to middle income levels.  Neither of these trends is likely to continue in America going forward: women are already fully present in the workforce, and as incomes climb over middle income levels, they have been shown to instigate less VMT (and even correlate with VMT decline);
  • Housing market preferences and development trends will likely continue attracting Americans to more compact neighborhoods, cutting the length of trips and increasing opportunities to walk, bike and use transit. Reinvestment in our traditional urban areas will also continue. Central city growth is, indeed, outstripping regional averages in many areas.
  • Marchetti’s Constant and the concept of personal travel budgets both present the reasonable idea that people will, or are really even able to, travel for only a certain amount of time per day.  Marchetti says it’s an hour, regardless of your travel speed.  Americans may have found that they’ve reached their own personal limit and are sick of driving, choosing less driving or alternatives if they have the option;
  • Technology, mobile phones, the internet…all have been quite logically connected to decreasing the need to drive, be it to work, shopping or a friend’s house. Unfortunately, there is as yet little empirical evidence establishing just what this impact can be.   While the impacts of telecommuting are relatively well explored, we don’t know whether 10,000 new smartphones or laptops means, say, 100,000 fewer trips.  Yet one thing is for sure: mobile technology is not going away. And many point to American young people’s “love affair with tech” as a reason they are choosing to drive less.

Long-term forecasting can be an inexact, even embarassing, affair, so I’ll avoid saying too much with too much confidence.  What I’ll do instead is present the three hypotheses laid out by the Roundtable.  For our distinguished panel, recent declines in driving are indicative of one of three trends:

  1. The Interrupted Growth Hypothesis: VMT cuts are temporary and increases will resume once the economy picks up (although we know more VMT is not a required, or inevitable, part economic growth);
  2. The Saturation Hypothesis: car ownership and personal travel budgets have hit their limit, so no more growth is likely;
  3. The Peak Car Hypothesis: VMT has hit its peak, and history will now see a VMT decline of undetermined length.

That’s right, folks.  According to the experts, in the future VMT will either go up, go down, or stay the same.

I vote for “go down.”

Justin Horner is a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. This piece was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard and was reprinted with permission.

12 Responses to Will 2013 Continue The 7-Year Downward Trend In American Driving?

  1. BBHY says:

    I think it is mostly a function of the end of the flight to the suburbs. Much progress has been made against urban blight and Americans have rediscovered city living.

    Another factor is that the cost of fuel and bad traffic conditions have made people less willing to take jobs that involve a long commute.

    Finally, young people have very different attitudes about cars. When I was in high school getting a car was a major goal for just about everyone. Times have changed and teens today are just not as interested in cars.

    So I guess my answer is #3, driven by cultural and demographic trends.

  2. rollin says:

    It’s all about burning fuel, VMT is a poor indicator of fuel usage and is decoupled for the upcoming high mpg and electrics. Now show me a drop of 2 to 3% a year in fuel usage and I will think there is some progress.
    With the schizo regulators pushing high mpg on one hand and more fuel production on the other, the message is to keep burning fossil fuels. The high mpg cars will allow poorer people to get around more, while extra fuel production will keep the price down.

  3. It would be useful to plot inflation adjusted gasoline prices as well (and to do a regression on this and other factors proposed above). It’s likely that the high gasoline prices in recent years have had a significant effect, with people realizing that 3-4$/gallon is the new normal.

  4. fj says:

    Cars are an absolutely awful way to get around, yet continue to monopolize transportation in this dangerous and declining fossil fuel civilization.

  5. Look to the cost of gasoline as the prime reason. It has been rising faster than vehicle efficiency in the fleet.

    Either Americans have to spend more for driving or drive less. We all know how much discretionary driving there is.

    Second biggest factor I think is the huge cost barrier to entry for a young person to get a car. The car + insurance + gas = high barrier. Competition from monthly cell phone bills that previous generations didn’t have to pay is a big choice in young potential drivers that I talk to.

  6. fj says:

    There are lots of financial reasons for the decline of car use and not just fuel costs.

    Average cost of car ownership in New York State was listed by AAA (a powerful advocate) as something like $7800 per year.

    During the financial meltdown a Wall Street Journal editorial described easily found money on the order of $6000 per year if you got rid of your car.

    Another financial stat going around is that the average person who owns a car has to work 2 hours a day to pay for it.

    Bloomberg has donated $100 million to his philanthropy to mitigate the deaths and injuries from road accidents worldwide which kill over 1.3 million and gravely injure over 50 million people per year; described as a global epidemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

  7. A.J. says:

    Last I looked, how high and fast MPG(e) will rise was still a matter of some debate. Ultimately the market (including fuel prices under increasing production) will largely determine whether people keep flocking to lighter vehicles, or the beefier ones that are given relatively lax treatment under the new fuel economy standards. But poorer people will likely be buying the older used cars for years to come. It can take awhile for these things to turn over.

  8. fj says:

    I just rented a car for about $79 plus taxes and fees and finished driving (which I rarely do) probably something like over 700 miles in 2 days.

    Luckily, I also rented a GPS with the car which cost me about $45 dollars for the two days and the trip would have been almost impossible without it as the level of complexity navigating the roads is mind-boggling.

    Gas cost another $76.

    And I got away cheap because I rented the car far away from a major urban center (and near a major railroad station) where I would have paid at least $200 more.

    Unfortunately, transit is not necessarily less expensive and it was not clear it was even an option because of the timing and the location; and would likely have been extremely inconvenient.

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Poor people do not buy new cars, or drive more than necessary. Now that the rich keep all of the money, the rest of us go from home to work and back.

  10. When I started driving in 1960 you could park close to where you wanted to go in a major Australian city at no cost. These days there are lots of destinations where parking costs a mint and/or you have to park a long way from where you want to go. This must be having an effect, particularly as cities are becoming more bike friendly.

  11. fj says:

    Two facts must be understood.

    1. Cars are a major threat to the future of civilization.

    2. Cars are very easy to replace.

  12. J4zonian says:

    Seeing the headline, my first thought was that it was about the quality of driving, which from my bicycle I’ve observed trend steadily downward where I live. Use of turn signals is down to about 1/2-2/3 of situations where they should be used; use of cell phones is up more every year even though it’s illegal; cars driving and parking in the bike lane as a matter of course; and increasingly, my pointing out any illegal or dangerous transgressions by drivers is met with impatience, disgust, righteous defensiveness, intransigence and even rage. Drivers ignoring, scapegoating, intentionally “brushing back” and being completely oblivious to cyclists is becoming the rule–though always with notable exceptions of politeness (even excessive politeness). The infrastructure for cycling and the funding for mass transit are pitiful and shrinking–in this state of California, often the trend-setter for social conditions, political structures (and traffic laws) the governor is blocking what small increases in funding and changes in laws we could get, that would make cycling safer and more practical.

    I was excited for a moment that someone was actually documenting this clear trend; disappointed that it’s not true even though the actual news is wonderful. It would be even better if we would organize to force government at every level and location to work for alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear. No matter what people think about the weather and the price of gas, change will not happen fast enough to save our asses from collapse and extinction unless we stop being complacent and afraid and make the changes happen.