Driving in America now at 1995 levels

Will 2013 Continue The 7-Year Downward Trend In American Driving?
[Via Climate Progress]

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).


Something very interesting is going on here. Youngsters are driving 24% less  than in 2001? Usually the young would seem to be the ones driving a lot. Also, all age groups are driving less.

Maybe it is just another trough but it has gone on longer than any other. And the peak pre-dated the Great Recession. Very odd indeed.