With its vast network of gas stations and open roads, driving has long been a favorite American pastime. The year 2007 saw vehicle use hit its peak — and, facing mounting fuel costs and ever increasing new vehicle prices, it hit an apex and has since been in steady decline. This past week, the Federal Highway Administration reported that vehicle miles traveled during the first half of this year were down slightly again as the trend continues.
“Even more telling,” Joan Lowy of the AP explains, “the average number of miles drivers individually rack up peaked in July 2004 at just over 900 per month,” she wrote, quoting 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.”
Pickrell and Pace indicate that through the 1990s, driving and economic activity were closely intertwined. If the economy was doing well, people drove more, and vice versa. However, “since then, the economy has grown more rapidly than auto use.” Lowy continues, “Gross domestic product declined for a while during the recession but reversed course in 2009. Auto use has yet to recover.” In her piece, Lowy outlined several ideas as to how these trends can be explained.
1. Fewer Younger Drivers
The percentage of individuals in their teens, 20s, and 30s with driver’s licenses has been seeing a significant decline, which could indicate that getting a driver’s license is no longer the teenage rite of passage that it once was, the data indicates. While there may be a deeper anthropological explanation behind this insight, the general trend of increasing vehicle-associated costs — purchase, fuel, and repairs — may just be too much for the unestablished set to maintain on top of other everyday living expenses.
2. The Miles We Drive Are Economically Bound
Another argument is that the shifts in driving habits are almost entirely linked to the economy. In a few years, as the economy continues to recover, driving will probably bounce back, according to this school. At the same time, though, those with this belief acknowledge there may potentially be long-term structural changes in the economy that could prevent a return to the levels of driving growth seen in the past, but it’s just too soon to know.
3. A Change in the Way We View the Automobile
“Economic factors are important, but says the decline in driving also reflects fundamental changes in the way Americans view the automobile,” Lowy writes. Though the appeal of actually driving sounds fun, getting stuck in traffic does not. Overall, driving — and car ownership as a whole — is more of a chore now, particularly in urban settings.
“The idea that the car means freedom, I think, is over,” said travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin, adding that, “The car as a fetish of masculinity is probably over for certain age groups. I don’t think young men care as much about the car they drive as they used to.”
4. Lifestyles Are Changing
With the birth and evolution of the Internet, people can now have a significant number of their errands taken care of right from home. Gone are trips to the bank, and even the post office — shopping for non-perishables has been fundamentally transformed. More people are taking public transit than ever before, while biking and walking to work and for recreational purposes are also seeing more use, as the country becomes increasingly aware of health and exercise.
5. Driving Demographics Have Shifted
The peak driving years for most people are between ages 45 and 55 when they are the height of their careers and have more money to spend, according to transportation analyst Alan Pisarski, who is the author of Commuting in America.
Now, the last few waves of the Baby Boomer generation — or those born between 1946 and 1964 — 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.
6. The Gender Gap
While driving has usually been thought of as a more masculine activity, there are now apparently more women than men in the U.S. holding driver’s licenses. Further, the drop off in miles driven over the past ten years were more widespread among men than women, according to Pickrell and Pace. Driving by men has declined in every age group, except those 65 or older, where it increased slightly. However, as far as women are concerned, driving declined only among young adults and teenagers.
7. The Financial Burden of it All
There’s no getting around the fact that cars have become increasingly expensive properties. Economists say that many Americans, especially teens and young adults, are finding that buying and owning a car exacerbates their financial resources considerably. The average price of a new car is $31,000, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“We’re not selling to everyone. We’re selling to upper-middle class to upper class,” said Sean McAlinden, the center’s chief economist. The rest of the public, he adds, buy used cars or takes the bus.