the driving boom is over

The Driving Boom is over.

So argues the U.S. PIRG's Frontier Group think tank in a report released this week entitled "A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America's Future" (follow the link for a download of the full document). From the end of the Second World War until sometime around 2004, both in terms of the total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on US roads and in terms of VMT per capita, the distance driven by each person, increased every year by approximately 3%. The chart below displays this trend; the rapid increase beginning in 1946 peaks in 2004, and has begun to decline or level off.

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US PIRG, A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America's Future

The PIRG report suggests a number of reasons for this emerging trend. Most obviously, fuel costs have increased dramatically since 2002 (more than doubling), and the recession and continued lagging economy have taken their toll on the ability of people to afford to travel by car.
But perhaps even more importantly, the mobility patterns of young Americans within the Millennial generation, here classified as people born between 1983 and 2000, are also changing:

Millennials are demonstrating significantly different lifestyle and transportation preferences than older generations. They drive less on average than previous generations of young people. More of them say they wish to live in cities and walkable neighborhoods. And more of them are drawn to forms of transportation other than driving. Moreover, the Millennials are the first generation whose lifestyles are shaped by the availability of mobile, Internet-connected technologies, social media, and the innovative forms of social connection, commerce and mobility that those technologies are spawning.

Among people ages 16 to 34, VMT per capita declined some 23% between 20001 and 2009, while their transit passenger miles increased by an astounding 40%. Moreover, in 2011, fewer 16 to 24-year-olds even had a license to drive than any year since 1967. 


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US PIRG, A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America's Future

There are complex ripple effects of this trend: declining congestion and air pollution, but also reduced funds to pay for all sorts of transportation projects normally funded by gas tax revenues. Increasing fuel costs create an incentive for consumers to purchase more fuel efficient vehicles and for manufacturers to produce them, which reduces the size of this funding stream. Likewise, the mode shift powered by the increasing share of trips on transit, carsharing and cycling also contributes to an overall diminution of the gas tax.

The changes in travel behavior described in this study create both challenges and opportunities. The data now support a reconsideration of our priorities in transportation planning at all levels, but in the short term, funding to actually build the kind of infrastructure and operate the sorts of systems to capitalize on this trend is anything but secure.

23 Responses to the driving boom is over

  1. Plaws14 May 17, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Fascinating and totally missed by the text on Urban Transportation that we’ll be using in the class I’m taking in the fall semester (Hanson/Giuliano, 3rd Ed). 🙂
    I’m not into this type of qualitative study, but it would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between reduced driving in this cohort with 1) intensively-scheduled childhood activities (with Mom-o-bus transportation) and/or 2) constant watching of video programs inside those Mom-o-buses.
    Seems to me that being driven everywhere (and never having to deal with the movement and storage of the vehicle) combined with learning that there are better things to do while being transported is *excellent* training for future transit patrons.
    Might be fun to see if kids that were chauffeured around watching TV are the ones that aren’t driving now.

  2. Jonathan May 18, 2013 at 1:50 am #

    I think we need to be a bit careful about this data. We should first presume that poor macroeconomic management will end, and so will this depression.
    Second the problem of high fuel prices is probably amiable to technological solutions. At the very least electrically driven battery powered cars are a rapidly maturing technology.
    Third the desire to be on social media full time will probably also be addressed by technology in the mid-term future – either self-driving cars, or some command-by-voice interface that allows you to do that while driving (probably slightly less safely than not, but sufficiently within the noise that it will not be legislated against).
    That leaves, well, call it that living densely is a complement to social media interaction – i.e. if you know when your friends are nearby you can easily meet up and do things. This seems right, and I hope so, but we should be careful about hinging the whole argument on it.
    I’m not sure what the implication is. Probably that we need to make sure to do transit projects in the best way possible, rather than counting on these externalities to push people onto transit.

  3. Eric Doherty May 18, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Maybe the conclusion we should reach is that it is time to stop building and widening roads, and re-allocate the money to transit, cycling and walking.

  4. Mike Smart May 18, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    We’ve recently done some work at UCLA on this topic and have found that the effects of the economic downturn are driving (pun intended) the decline in youth travel. The fact that VMT started to decline before the recession is likely due to the increased cost of driving (i.e. gas prices).
    Youth have been hit hardest by the recession. Their unemployment rates since the beginning of the recession are consistently over twice as high as those of older folks. Even when they are employed, today’s youth are making less money than yesterday’s youth… so we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that they are saving money by driving less.
    It’s also not surprising that today’s youth are less likely to have a license when you define youth as including 16 year olds, as many states have made it much more difficult (or even impossible) for 16-y.o.s to get a license. These trends started in the 1990s with the first graduated drivers licensing programs.
    Finally, we (like several people before us) have found that–if anything–the use of technology is correlated with MORE travel rather than less. (IE tech may help us coordinate busy lives, rather than supplant travel.)
    If you’re interested, take a look at our report here!

  5. Tom West May 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Jonathan/Mike Smart: The peak occurred *before* the current depression started in 2008. Further, fuel prices have bounced up *and* down like a yoyo in the past ten years. So, I don’t think those are the causes.

  6. Henry Porter May 18, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

    Eric Doherty,
    Since the lion’s share of the money now being used to subsidize transit, cycling and walking comes from drivers, as fewer and fewer drivers pay less and less gas taxes, who will pay for the costs of building and operating transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure? Will bus and train passengers finally pay the entire cost of their transportation? Or, will they continue to be subsidized by drivers, with lower and lower gas tax revenue?

  7. Matthew May 19, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    Henry, roads and highways are massively subsidized by general revenues. Instead of subsidizing driving exclusively, we’re now talking about actually building communities where people want to live — instead of desolate landscapes that people want to escape.
    And real communities, real places where people live , work and play, generate far more value — not just monetary — than vast stretches of asphalt.

  8. Joseph Alacchi May 19, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    Henry, also consider that with increased ridership, yes transit will subsidize itself. Financially, an individual contributes more to the transit agency in fares by riding than the measly fraction of his contribution by driving.

  9. Henry Porter May 19, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    Both highways and public transportation are subsidized by general revenue. On a per year basis, highways are subsidized more than transit. On a per trip basis, the reverse is true.
    In addition, highway users subsidize transit riders. In the history of America, there has never been an instance where a transit rider has subsidized a driver.
    Those “vast stretches of asphalt” are what drives the American economy and deliver just about everything you use to your door or store. The percentage of land surface that is paved in the US is estimated at between 1.1 and 1.6 percent. Is that “vast”?
    Not sure what you mean by “measly fraction” but consider this. An auto that gets 20 mpg and pays $0.35/gal in state and federal gas taxes pays $0.0175/mile into state and federal coffers for every mile it travels. (Is that what you mean by measly?)
    Okay, now multiply that by, say, the 50,000 cars that travel on an Interstate road in a DAY. That’s $875 per day or $319,400 per mile per year.
    Now, you sit down and figure out how much it costs a transit agency per bus-mile to operate its service. Then calculate what the fare would have to be per passenger-mile just to break even. Feel free to assume all buses are full all the time.
    Then, get back to us with what it would take per passenger mile for transit to “subsidize itself” (whatever that means…).

  10. Jonathan May 20, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    ‘…the conclusion we should reach…’
    I tend to agree (this conclusion suits my priors, even without further evidence), but the thrust of my point is that we shouldn’t be complacent about the ‘death of driving’ from this data. We should drive the ‘death of driving’ by creating a superior transit alternative.

  11. John Smith May 20, 2013 at 1:19 am #

    I’m with Matthew on this one – get communities right, and the need/desire to travel to work, school, etc., diminishes dramatically, as does the need for all forms of motorised transport. It’s called sustainability.
    Generally, our current western method of living is not sustainable in the long term. Historically, it’s nothing more than a blip. We should be using technology to underpin low energy towns and cities and enhance lifestyles. Dependency on transport is nineteenth-century thinking!
    Oops… I think I’ve just talked myself out of a job…!!!

  12. Eric May 20, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    “Further, fuel prices have bounced up *and* down like a yoyo in the past ten years.”
    Driving choices are a delayed reaction to gas prices – if you live in an exurb, you are unlikely to move if the gas price spikes. But you will certainly consider a more central and transit-accessible location the next time you move.

  13. Eric May 20, 2013 at 5:53 am #

    “The fact that VMT started to decline before the recession is likely due to the increased cost of driving (i.e. gas prices).”
    This DOES indicate a permanent decline, as gas prices are unlikely to decline below their current levels.
    “Finally, we (like several people before us) have found that–if anything–the use of technology is correlated with MORE travel rather than less.”
    Do you control for other factors, like income? People with more income have more access to technology and can also afford to travel more…

  14. Eric May 20, 2013 at 5:56 am #

    Henry Porter: A number of transit systems in other countries do “subsidize themselves”, i.e. make a profit which can be reinvested into system expansion.

  15. Robert Wightman May 20, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    I don’t know how it is in the US but in Toronto the housing prices in the inner city, mainly condos continue to increase while condo prices further out are stalling or dropping slightly. Those who choose to live in the core are young, urban professionals who have quite a high income. These are the people here who are choosing to live downtown and car less.
    Coca Cola Canada just moved their office from a more suburban area with parking into the downtown with little, and high priced parking. They made the move to attract and keep the people they wanted.
    Some other, especially high tech and high intellect companies are moving downtown from the suburban office parks. Toronto has always been a bit different than most other cities in that we kept our street car network largely intact and almost all of it ran in mixed traffic. Just ignore the comments on the news and late night TV about our Mayor.

  16. Andrew May 20, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    Henry Porter: “In the history of America, there has never been an instance where a transit rider has subsidized a driver.”
    Pardon? I live in New York City. Like most of my fellow New York City residents, I don’t own a car. Virtually all of my travel around the city outside of walking distance is by transit – usually subway, occasionally bus.
    Yet the streets that a minority of my neighbors drive on are maintained by the taxes that I pay. The space taken up by those streets – some of the most valuable space in the world – is given away for free to those who opt to drive. If I don’t have enough space for all of my personal property in my apartment, I have to pay to rent a storage locker – but twenty drivers are currently storing their personal property on my block, simply because that personal property happens to be a car.
    I am a transit rider. I subsidize a heck of a lot of drivers. And I am not unique.

  17. Matthew May 20, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

    Henry, I don’t have to go far to find a place where users of transit subsidize highways. I live in Boston, the economic heart of New England. The Commonwealth owes much of its infrastructure to the economic growth generated by Boston, and no city, much less Boston, could work with only automobile transportation alone. As Jarrett would say, it’s a simple matter of geometry: you cannot fit that many cars into that small a place.
    The state of transportation funding in the Commonwealth is woeful, and plenty can point to problems in the MBTA. But it turns out that MassHighway is in even worse shape, and has made a policy of borrowing money to cover operating costs, then covered it up, digging them deeper.
    A reduction in driving does not deepen the funding hole — instead, it lowers costs. People are moving back closer to the city so that they can replace car trips with walking trips in many cases. Overbuilt infrastructure is being down-sized, saving money in the process. We have decrepit, underutilized urban highways which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to replace; instead we’ll spend less than a tenth of that to boulevardize them. And that’s not counting the long-term maintenance savings.
    You claim that 1.1 to 1.6% of the US is covered with asphalt but you neglect to note that the US is relatively sparsely populated. In urban areas, where people actually live, asphalt coverage can easily exceed 50%. That’s not cheap. Who do you think pays for that? The taxpayer. We also pay in lowered quality of life, lessened opportunity, and higher pollution and mortality rates.
    Yes, we need motor vehicles for transport. But we don’t need to totally devote our cities and our lives to them. We don’t need to implicitly subsidize them. That just results in decay and decline, a lesson we learned the hard way during the 20th century.

  18. Mike May 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

    I really question these stats. There is no doubt that where transit is viable, younger people are not driving as much.
    But the fact remains that over half of Americans even in metropolitan areas, have no access to public transit within walking distance of their homes.
    And those that do have access to transit, often have very dismal service levels which would not make anyone stop driving.
    So how American’s driving less, when there is no transit to get them where they need to go, is the question?
    I am trying to remember these stats off the top of my head, so forgive me if the percentages are a little off. But just to illustrate the point:
    -Only half of Metro Phoenix residents have access to transit within a half mile of their homes. For the half that do have access, the service is mostly poor.
    -Only 35% of Metro Birmingham, Alabama residents have access to transit.
    -Tulsa, with over one million people in the metro region, has no Sunday bus service.
    -In transit rich Greater Chicago, only a handful of routes (I think it is four) operate until midnight, seven days a week.
    -In transit rich Metro New York City, the majority of suburban residents have dismal bus service. It is not normal at all for suburban residents to use transit to access shopping malls or other local destinations. The majority of riders in suburban New York, are actually poor riders from the city, going to low wage suburban jobs.
    These are just a few examples. But the fact is even if American’s want to change their habits, there are very very few places one can do that. The service is just so dismal in most cases.

  19. Mike May 21, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Just in cpntrast to the American figures.
    In Canada, over 80% of Canadians have transit.
    In metropolitan areas and cities, excluding rural areas, over 90% of residents are generally within a 5 minute walk of transit (this is pushed to about 10 minutes on some systems in off peak hours).
    Totally different from the lack of transit access in the USA, which would make giving up a car or driving less much harder.

  20. anonymouse May 24, 2013 at 3:43 am #

    Note that just a graph of VMT per capita doesn’t necessarily say anything about who is and isn’t driving. It could be that the same number of people are driving fewer miles each, as worse economic conditions mean fewer discretionary activities and fewer discretionary trips. All of this makes sense from an economics standpoint: the marginal cost of driving is low, and thus the value of the marginal driving trip is also very, very low, and the elasticity of driving demand is very high. When something is free, which driving (and parking) are often seen as being, at least the margin, even a small increase in cost in absolute terms can have a big effect by being a big increase in relative terms. After all, the price of something going from “free” to “very, very cheap” is still an increase of infinity percent!

  21. paraOz May 28, 2013 at 3:02 am #

    “Generally, our current western method of living is not sustainable in the long term.”
    Not western method…American method (and Australian, though for geographically more sound reasons).

  22. M1EK June 5, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Henry, transit riders subsidize drivers in pretty much any large city in a state where gas tax revenues are not equally shared based on contributions with metro areas – because large (older) cities must maintain a much larger portion of their major roadway network than do suburban and exurban communities; and they don’t get gas tax dollars with which to do it.
    TXDOT did a study a couple years back which estimated a 6-1 subsidy ratio received by drivers on a given (new) state highway in the exurbs. The 1 is the gas tax that driver paid while on that facility; the 6 is the cost. The other 5 bucks come mainly from urban drivers who pay gas tax but drive on roads which are paid for out of general funds; and then the transit customer is paying for all those general-fund-paid roadways (including some portions of state highways) and getting nearly zero utility back.

  23. Alon Levy June 6, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    In 1920s’ Denver, the streetcar system was made to pay 25% of the cost of road maintenance on one-way streets it ran on and 50% on two-way streets. These percentages did not change during the auto boom of the 20s, so by the Depression the streetcars were paying far more for road maintenance than their proportion of road use, while additional cars on the roads just slowed the system down. Buses did not have this requirement, which helped incentivize bustitution. (Source: 20th Century Sprawl, by Owen Gutfreund.)
    In less populated areas, interurbans were required to pay some of the costs of the roads that competed with them. For example, grade separations, decided by highway commissions, were charged to the railroad even when the railroad was there first. (See, for example, Kentucky’s rules on the matter: if the railroad predates the US Highway system then the costs are split 50/50, otherwise they’re borne 100% by the railroad, and in either case the state DOT gets to make the decision to compel building a grade separation).
    In today’s Massachusetts, court-mandated environmental mitigations for the Big Dig are charged to the MBTA if they include transit construction. (Source: the MBTA document Born Broke.)