Here’s Why the American Driving Boom Ended

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Every year between the end of World War II and 2004, Americans drove more miles than the year before. But new data indicates that the six decade-long driving boom — a phenomenon that saw steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States — has ended.

The unique combination of forces that fueled the driving boom, namely cheap gas prices and the rapid expansion of the workforce during the Baby Boom generation, are no longer the forces guiding America’s relationship with cars. Now, Americans not only drive fewer total miles than they did eight years ago, but they also drive fewer miles per person than they did at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term. The new generation, known as the millennials, is now “demanding a new American Dream less dependent on driving,” as the Frontier Group noted in a recent policy paper titled “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future.”

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While millennials may be carving out lives that do not rely on driving as heavily as they did in previous generations, transportation policy in the United States has not caught up to the changing trends. That is a key point in the analysis. Even though recent data suggests that per-capita increases in driving have ended, official forecasts of future vehicle travel assume the opposite. These forecasts are used to justify spending vast sums of money on new and expanded highways, while existing roads and bridges are neglected.

As Frontier group’s Tony Dutzik wrote, “The time has come for America to hit the “reset” button on transportation policy — replacing the policy infrastructure of the Driving Boom years with a more efficient, flexible, and nimble system that is better able to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.”

Although Americans drove no more miles in 2012 than they did in 2004, they did take nearly 10 percent more trips via public transportation in 2011 than they did in 2005. The United States also saw increase in commuting by bike and on foot.

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It has been the millennial generation — those Americans born between 1983 and 2000 — who have ushered in the recent change in transportation trends. This group is already the largest generation in the United States, and therefore, their choices will guide the nation’s future transportation infrastructure needs. Millennials drive much less than previous generations of young Americans, and they will not reach peak driving age, the 35-to-54 year old demographic, until 2030. If the decline in per-capita driving continues for another dozen years, total vehicle travel in the United States could remain below its 2007 peak despite the fact that the population is expected to increase by 21 percent.

According to the Frontier Group, the driving reduction will have major implications for transportation policy, and it has influenced many other parts of American life already. Traffic congestion has fallen, America is less dependent on oil, and roads are being used less — although the gas tax is generating less income.

In order to adapt to these changes, the policy paper argued that the federal government should better evaluate the costs and benefits of all transportation projects based on several scenarios of future driving demand. In addition, the firm stated that the official policy should support millennials and other Americans in their desire to drive less, repair existing infrastructure, and use transportation revenue where it makes the most sense.

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