why are americans driving less? better communication options!

Over the last 15 years, the Internet and mobile communications technologies have transformed the way Americans live and work. During that same period, growth in [motor] vehicle travel slowed and then stopped, with Americans today driving about as much on average as we did in 1996.

USPIRG has a new report out today, focused on how network technology has ushered in new possibilities for Americans’ personal mobility. Modern communications are beginning to alter the types of trips people need to make, as more and more people work remotely for at least a portion of their working hours. The mobile, high-speed, GPS devices that a majority now own are absolutely necessary to the cellphone trip planners and various -sharing systems that have spread to many US cities in recent years. 

This is one of the most compelling arguments for why we should expect America’s declining interest in cars to be permanent.  

The “decline of cars” story is a hard one to convey to the currently ruling generation (now in their 40s-70s).  Older folks too easily assume that Millennial disinterest in cars has something to do with being young and single and childless and maybe poor.  

We already knew that Americans are getting drivers licenses later and later in life — and this statistic ought to get attention because it’s comparing Millennial behavior to that of their parents at the same age.  

The strongest story, though, presents not just a trend but an explanation of it, and that’s what we have here.  Communications technology explains why the younger generation is finding cars less necessary (and why older people who are good at technological uptake are finding the same thing).  People still need to be together (see Yahoo’s recent decision to abolish telecommuting) but communication technology is replacing a lot of errands that the older generation is used to doing with cars.

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USPIRG reviews a broad array of recent research on the topic, concluding:

By providing more
choices and flexibility for individuals to meet their transportation needs,
these new tools can make it convenient to adopt “carfree” and “car-light”

Households that reduce
the number of vehicles they own often dramatically reduce the number of miles
they drive. Because many of the costs of owning a car are perceived to be
fixed, vehicle owners perceive the cost of driving an additional mile to be
artificially low. New services such as carsharing shift the cost of driving
from fixed to per-mile costs, providing an incentive for users to drive less
and allowing many households to reduce their overall spending on

Information technologies make it easier to ensure seamless connections between various modes of transportation, expanding the number and types of trips that can be
completed effectively without a car.

The report also discusses mobile ticketing, perception of travel time, and each of the various sorts of sharing services, and provides a set of policy recommendations to respond to and build upon the potential of this technology. Read it yourself here.

16 Responses to why are americans driving less? better communication options!

  1. Alon Levy October 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    Yes, but demotorization is an older trend than smartphones. The reduction in car travel relative to income goes back to about 1990. The 2000s are just when income growth was slow enough that motorization growth turned negative.

  2. Bradley Wentworth October 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    I doubt technology is what is truly behind declining rates of driving. Urbanization rates and the structure of the urban fabric are probably far more relevant. Make a vibrant, dense downtown and people will move there – without their cars.

  3. Non-techie Talk October 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    The opening credits for the tv show That 70s Show is applicable – “not a thing to do, just talk to you.” Where? In a car. The car was a vehicle (pun intended) for getting together with a group of friends.
    Today we can do that without a car. We do that with Facebook, and Twitter, and texting, and…and…all on our smartphones.
    There is certainly merit in the argument that technology is impacting how much we drive. Of course, it is not the only factor, and may not even be the biggest factor. Plenty of research is available that shows the Baby Boom cohort created more demand than ever before, and since that cohort has moved through its primary consumption years (it’s no coincidence that the minivan coincided with the real estate boom, as Baby Boomers had families and bought houses; it’s no coincidence spirituality returned to vogue in the 1990s as Boomers hit into their mid-life sense of mortality; it’s no coincidence that BearStearns and Lehman Bros folded as the sheer demand of Boomers expired).
    What we’d come to understand as “normal” over the last 30 years is no longer normal. There aren’t near as many 20-somethings today as there were 40 years ago when the latter Boomers were into their 20s; there isn’t as much demand for anything as there was back then.

  4. Voony October 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

    If the argument (technology communication reduce mobility need) hold true, it should also apply to transit, isn’t?

  5. Frederick October 2, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    @ Voony
    Maybe slightly, but that would be balanced by the ability to use technology on transit. For a driver to use a phone while traveling is considered a danger to other road users.

  6. Rob October 2, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    This may all be true. But I’m also concerned that there’s some optimism at play here. We are very slowly still emerging from a mammoth economic disruption. There’s an illusion that the economy is back, but that’s the stock market, not the economy. The level of total employment has not recovered, and youth are unemployed in far greater proportions. I think lower employment and lower wealth affting most people in the economy is still a factor.

  7. Thomas October 2, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    I don’t see how showing that adoption of new technologies progresses establishes a causation with decline in driving.

  8. Jarrett October 2, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Thomas. Because the degree of intimacy with communications technology is inversely related to age, and young people’s experience will, over time, become the dominant experience as they move into the positions of power in the culture.

  9. EN57 October 2, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    Thomas and others above have made some good points. The report doesn’t actually answer “why americans are driving less”. Jarrett, are you sure you’re not reading too much into this report? There are lots of variables involved and technology is only one of them.

  10. Jason October 5, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    It is difficult to quantify the effect of each variable, so we really don’t know what’s the “main reason.” The report, however, points out to many possible reasons and provides plausible argument for them.
    Since the fundamental changes described in the report are permanent, it’s quite reasonable to conclude that the decline in per capita miles driven will not suddenly reverse and climb back up.
    Let’s also remember that the recent economic turmoil is not going to just magically go away. It will take quite a few more years to reduce the youth unemployment for example, and that alone will probably reduce the per capita miles driven for a while.
    Therefore yes I agree that miles driven can only go down and not up for years from now. However, I don’t think there is sufficient evidence that communications technology and social media is “the” major cause.

  11. Rob October 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    So sales tax receipts are down in our area, and it’s causing transit cutbacks (it is beginning a slight rise again, like VMT). Yet the economy is supposedly back and the unemployment rate is down. Should I conclude that there’s been some fundamental change in our societal interest in spending money, perhaps that they’re too busy texting and sexting to want to see each other or shop? Or maybe in this case the fact that employment really hasn’t bounced back might be more of the cause?
    I guess my point is that people jump to conclusions based on short term trends and extend them to their future projections. Time will tell!

  12. Alan Budde October 11, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Looking around at my friends and family I would say that there is strong anecdotal evidence that there is a lifestyle shit wrt use of technology. But as others have pointed out there is no way to effectively disentangle that from the current economy. Only time will tell, but as a transit rider I can say that technology has made it immensely easier and more enjoyable over the laste ~5 years or so.

  13. Nathanael October 12, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    I would expect delivery truck traffic to be up, if this trend is correct (ordering from Amazon, eBay, etc.)

  14. Rob October 12, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    The big factors that you need to control for to reach any conclusion about fundamental changes in travel behavior are the colossal losses of wealth and employment that continue to tamp down economic activity. The economy looks great to people in the stock market or real estate, but even people with jobs feel more constrained than they did in the 20 years of bubbles prior to the collapse. Lots of people have believed for decades that the day would come where all of our transit and TDM and new density ideas would start being transformative – and so there’s a great willingness to believe that’s what’s happening now, but it could lead to the wrong conclusions if not careful. Personally I think there’s a lot more wishful thinking than science involved.

  15. JN_Seattle October 17, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    Rise in the price of gasoline in real dollars matters also, combined with stagnation in middle class incomes.
    One point to remember — even if VMT falls ten percent, there’s still a hell of a lot of driving going on.
    Claiming that electronic communications is going to take down travel demand goes back several decades. Nice to see the claim come back. I was once all in, and then went way out. Time to dust off the old research and see what’s different now.

  16. Robert Moore February 2, 2014 at 11:34 pm #

    Some analysis on WTPP by Kenworthy on the trends and relation of GDP and VKT. Something’s going on, we just don’t need to drive to make a buck these days!