Hey, Dad, you can keep the car keys

  • Driving less

    Driving less

    This chart documents the rise in US vehicle miles traveled per capita from 1970 to about 2004 and the drop since then.

    Source: US PIRG

Philip Langdon
Better! Cities & Towns

The US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and the Frontier Group have released a report showing that by 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004. 

Especially interesting are these findings:

The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent. 

The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting–even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons–higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences–all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

The 34-page report, "Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy," was written by Benjamin Davis and Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall of US PIRG Education Fund.

Some might think that the depressed economy of the past few years is at the heart of the reduction in driving among young people. "The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially,"US PIRG says.

The trend against driving and car-buying was elaborated on in a March 22 New York Times article on General Motors' marketing strategy for dealing with the fact that "many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars." The Times article suggested that a key factor may be the the fading of car culture—displaced by technology culture (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

In response to the Times article, Ben Walsh wrote a fascinating Reuters opinion piece, "Why young people aren't driving." He attributed the change to four economic trends:

1) Car prices have risen and are at all time highs, up 11% in just the last four years.

2) Gasoline prices have risen in real dollars.

3) The higher gas prices have not been been offset by gains in efficiency (more miles per gallon).

4) Median income declined from 2000 to 2010. 

Walsh presents interesting charts to document those trends. One reader suggested that the rising cost of medical care and insurance also has played a role, leaving less money for cars and driving.

With so many factors at work—surely another is the the growing appeal of urban life—it now looks as if the days of Americans' "love affair with the automobile" are mostly in the past. 

NOTE: On April 7 we corrected an error in this article. We originally reported that according to Ben Walsh, "higher gas prices have been offset by gains in efficiency...." Actually, Walsh said higher gas prices "have not been offset" by efficiency gains.

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