WASHINGTON – Driving in America has stalled, leading researchers to ask: Is the national love affair with the automobile over?
After rising for decades, total vehicle use in the U.S. – the miles people drive – peaked in August 2007. It then dropped sharply during the Great Recession and has largely plateaued since, even though the economy is recovering and the population growing. Just this week, the Federal Highway Administration reported vehicle miles traveled during the first half of 2013 were down slightly, continuing the trend.
Even more telling, the average number of miles drivers individually rack up peaked in July 2004 at just over 900 per month, according to a study by Transportation Department economists Don Pickrell and David Pace. By July of last year, that had fallen to 820 miles per month, down about 9 percent. Per capita automobile use is now back at the same levels as in the late 1990s.
Until the mid-1990s, driving levels largely tracked economic growth, according to Pickrell and Pace, who said their conclusions are their own and not the government’s. Since then, the economy has grown more rapidly than auto use. Gross domestic product declined for a while during the recession but reversed course in 2009. Auto use has yet to recover.
Meanwhile, the share of people in their teens, 20s and 30s with driver’s licenses has been dropping significantly, suggesting that getting a driver’s license is no longer the teenage rite of passage it once was.
Researchers are divided on the reasons behind the trends.
One camp says the changes are almost entirely linked to the economy. In a few years, as the economy continues to recover, driving will probably bounce back, they reason.
At the same time, they acknowledge there could be long-term structural changes in the economy that would prevent a return to the levels of driving growth seen in the past; it’s just too soon to know.
The other camp acknowledges that economic factors are important but says the decline in driving also reflects fundamental changes in the way Americans view the automobile. For commuters stuck in traffic, getting into a car no longer correlates with fun. It’s also becoming more of a headache to own a car in central cities and downright difficult to park.
“The idea that the car means freedom, I think, is over,” said travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin.
“The car as a fetish of masculinity is probably over for certain age groups,” she added. “I don’t think young men care as much about the car they drive as they used to.”
That’s partly because cars have morphed into computers on wheels that few people dare tinker with, McGuckin explained. “You can’t open the hood and get to know it the way you used to,” she said.
Social networking online may also be substituting for some trips. A study by University of Michigan transportation researcher Michael Sivak found that the decline in the number of teens and young adults with driver’s licenses in the U.S. was mirrored in other wealthy countries with a high proportion of Internet users.
Demographic changes are also a factor. The peak driving years for most people are between ages 45 and 55 when they are at the height of their careers and have more money to spend, said Alan Pisarski, author of “Commuting in America.”
Now, the last of the baby boomers are moving out of their peak driving years. “They are still the dominant players, and they are moving toward a quieter transportation lifestyle,” Pisarski said.
Economists say many Americans, especially teens and young adults, are finding that buying and owning a car stretches their financial resources. The average price of a new car is $31,000.