Americans appear to have lost their yen to drive significantly more each year—and may never return to the pace set nearly 60 years ago, according to a major new study.
The report, A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, was produced by the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Education Fund.
The study analyzes U.S. government census and traffic data, including the National Household Travel Survey.
source: A New Direction
The report notes that average miles driven per capita in the U.S. began to decline in 2004, three years before the economic slump. It says permanent changes in driving habits appear to have occurred, especially among the largest segment of the American population: the Millennial generation (also known as Generation Y) born between 1983 and 2000.
Total miles driven in the U.S. surged after World War II from roughly 300 billion miles in 1946 to more than 3 trillion miles by 2004. But miles driven has stalled since then. And per-capita driving, which zoomed 85% between 1970 and 2004 alone, has since slipped 1%.
The study attributes the change to aging Baby Boomers, higher fuel prices, tougher licensing standards for youth, slower growth in vehicle ownership per capita, longer commute times and a shrinking proportion of Americans in the labor force.
Millennials, who number more than 77 million and account for nearly one in four Americans today, are having a huge impact, according to the report. It cites a steady decline since 1990 in the percentage of licensed drivers between 16 and 24 years old. By 2011 that ratio had dropped to 67%, the lowest since 1963.
Millennials are driving less in part because of the impact of America’s prolonged economic slowdown. But per-capita vehicle travel for that group has fallen among its employed and unemployed members. A New Direction points to multiple studies indicating that Millennials are less interested than other drivers in owning a car and are more likely to use alternate means of transportation.
The analysis concludes that Americans will drive less than was forecasted a few years ago. But how much less isn’t clear.
The report says demographic shifts alone will slow the growth in vehicle-miles traveled, even if other changes in driving habits prove temporary. But if those shifts since 2004 are permanent, growth in miles driven would stall for many years.
And if the changes seen in recent years mark the beginning of a more fundamental shift in transportation patterns, miles driven could decline for decades, according to the study.
The analysis warns that America’s transportation policies have failed to recognize that trends are changing. It urges planners to acknowledge an uncertain future and evaluate projects in terms of their ability to deliver benefits under any scenario.