It’s now common knowledge that annual changes in the volume of driving no longer follow the old ways.
For sixty years, the number of vehicle miles travelled (VMT) rose steadily almost every year. Predicting more driving miles next year was a foregone conclusion, like predicting that the sun would rise or that computer chips would be faster. The only direction seemed to be up.
Then, after 2004 per-capita VMT turned downward, falling 6 percent, and leading to a decline in total VMT since 2007.
The most recent data are from July, traditionally America’s biggest month for driving. In July 2012, Americans clocked over 258 billion miles behind the wheel, a billion fewer miles than the previous July despite a slightly stronger economy and cheaper gasoline. In fact, you’d need to go back to 2002 to find a July when Americans drove fewer miles than July 2012.
There are good reasons to believe the current slowdown in driving may persist. A report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in April showed that youth are leading the trend toward less driving. While the National Household Travel Survey only allows comparison of driving in 2001 and 2009, it shows that Americans aged 16 to 34 reduced their driving miles by 23 percent between those years. Meanwhile, youth are increasing their use of public transit, biking and walking faster than the general population. Changing patterns in the use of information technology and changing preferences for urban living may be major factors in these shifts.
Has America’s long increase in driving turned a corner or just taken a prolonged pause? The answer matters a lot. Consider five scenarios: