MADISON, Wis. — The driving boom is over in the United States.
True or false?
For anyone who grew up thinking the United States is the epicenter of the world's car culture, this is a possibility hard to swallow.
Moreover, Americans who live in the suburbs, drive to work, and heavily rely on cars to haul kids around where they need to go, the notion that we are driving less simply feels false.
I was one of those skeptics.
So I've decided to take a hard look for the source of this dubious generalization: The New York Times article, "The End of Car Culture."
I tracked down data generated by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Highway Administration, while going through a few in-depth reports on the topic issued by the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) over the last several months.
And here's what I've found. According to US data generated over the last few decades:
- We are driving less (fewer vehicle-miles traveled)
- We own fewer vehicles
- There has been a large drop in the percentage of 16- to 39-year-olds getting a license
Let's start with fewer vehicle-miles traveled (VMT).
According to the data generated by the DOT during the second half of the 20th century, the total number of miles driven in America steadily increased by an average of 1.8 percent annually between 1970 and 2004.
Then, the trend flipped.
Since the mid-2000s, miles driven in America -- both total and per capita -- have fallen. From 2004 to 2012, the average number of vehicle-miles driven per capita decreased by 7.6 percent. And from 2007 to 2012, the total miles fell by 3.1 percent.
Total and per Capita Vehicle-Miles Traveled, U.S.
One obvious question is whether the decline in VMT might be the result of the recent recession. A report by US PIRG, "Transportation in Transformation," says not necessarily so: "The trend toward reduced per-capita VMT began long before the recent recession. Per-capita vehicle travel peaked in 2004, while the recent recession did not begin until the fall of 2007."
Further, driving has fallen among those with jobs, according to the report. Quoting the National Household Travel Survey (based on data from DOT and the Federal Highway Administration), the report said: "While rising unemployment during the recession surely contributed to declining driving, the VMT per employed worker fell from 12,900 to 11,800 (8.3 percent), between 2001 and 2009. Meanwhile, the VMT per non-worker fell from 3,600 to 3,500 (3.6 percent)."