U.S. Driving Decline

Thinking of a Master Plan: The American Dream

It seems like that slice of Americana that we all strive for is changing; at least from my perspective anyway. I’m a Gen Xer and if you would’ve asked me what the plan was back in high school, I would have regurgitated the old house with a white picket fence spiel. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still love to attain that dream, but the splash of cold reality or recession as most know it, has brought me and others in my generation back down to earth. The reality is that the dream is what you make it and the norms once established aren’t givens. This fact isn’t any more apparent than in the housing and auto market for young people.

Since when did Driving become Nostalgic?

A decade ago any personal finance professional would tell you that the largest expenses in a persons life are a House, Funeral, Wedding, and Vehicle. It’s not surprising that the first three expenses are trending down given the housing bubble and subsequent hit on personal budgets for Funeral and Wedding options. What’s most significant is that in a country built on auto manufacturing, vehicle use is becoming a thing of the past.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) just released a stirring report that shows vehicle use may have hit its tipping point. The report points out that not only are Americans driving fewer total miles today than we did eight years ago, but that a return to a steady growth in driving is unlikely.

The Numbers 
Courtesy of U.S. PIRG
According to the report, PIRG projects that if the Millennial-led decline in per-capita driving continues at even at half the annual rate of our recent vehicle use peak period (2001-2009), the total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040—despite a 21 percent increase in population. To play devil’s advocate let’s say the projections are somehow skewed.

Even in doing so, the report cites data that supports this trend. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Americans spent 421 million fewer hours stuck in traffic in 2011 than they did in 2005, which shows a decline in congestion. Sure this data alone could suggest tax policies and other influences are affecting congestion, but think about our national energy policy. How many times have we all heard President Obama touting American gasoline consumption being at a 10-year low? Those are facts just like our focus on energy independence and renewable energy sources. 

The Future of Transportation

The most poignant aspect of this report is the juxtaposition of the current U.S. transportation policy with driving statistics. Most municipal governments get it and are taking serious steps toward meeting the challenge of the future: Millennials who are more likely to want to live in urban and walkable neighborhoods and are more open to non-driving forms of transportation than older Americans.  National transportation policy on the other hand just isn’t there yet. The problem is that we’re a highway happy country and since we’ve built so many its hard to let go. That may explain why official forecasts of future vehicle travel continue to assume steady increases in driving, despite the experience of the past decade. Notice that bolded word?

The future of transportation holds many possibilities. More and more cities are implementing safe-biking programs to support the increase in ridership and are completely changing the way they view transit. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is entering major cities such as Chicago, which can address congestion and efficiency problems effectively. Even the funding problems that have long impaired transit agencies now include alternative funding options such as congestion and cordon fees that would discourage driving, provide transit revenue, and clean the environment. Driving won’t ever be obsolete, but in today’s environment, it’s sometimes impractical. The future is clear and its green.


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