New PIRG Study Shows Driving in Decline

Recently, The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) published a report that was the first study to analyze the nation’s changing trends in driving practices. The most striking aspect of this report is that it provides strong evidence to counter the assumption of U.S. government officials that vehicle use will continue on an upward trajectory. Now, U.S. PIRG has expanded on this study by producing a new report, which completes a state-by-state driving analysis.

Study Recap

The premise of the first study is that the U.S. is not just in a driving decline, but has fundamentally changed its driving behavior due to a Millennial-led decline in per-capita driving. This is more than just a claim, and U.S. PIRG puts this change into historical context.

The Baby Boomers generation, highway expansion, and low fuel costs drove (pun intended) a steady increase in driving over the past several decades. Now, Baby Boomers are retiring, highways are deteriorating and more congested, and gas prices are causing Americans to feel the pinch. These factors are driving Millennials to delay obtaining their driver’s license until much later in life than previous generations.

New Findings

In their new report, U.S. PIRG concludes that 46 states plus the District of Columbia experienced a reduction in the average number of driving miles since the end of the driving boom in 2004. Previously, U.S. officials assumed this was due to economic conditions: essentially, as economic conditions improve, these officials would expect for driving activity to pick back up. The U.S. PIRG report concludes the exact opposite.

In their report, they find no correlation between declining rates of driving and how badly each state suffered economically in recent years. Check out these stats:

•    Out of the 10 states with the greatest reductions in the employed share of population, only 2 were also among the ten states with the largest reductions of driving (Georgia and the District of Columbia).

•    Out of the 23 states in which driving miles per person declined faster than the national average, only 6 saw unemployment increase faster than the nation as a whole.

•    Out of the 10 states with the largest declines in driving per person, only 2 rank among the 10 with largest increases in unemployment.

But Why?

If those numbers woke you up, then I’m sure you want to know the factors behind these state trends like I did. 

Economic Explanation:
While this report acknowledges that the economy has a major impact on driving trends, it points out the per capita driving was already declining pre-recession. Another fact it highlights is that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stopped moving in correlation with driving volumes since the beginning of last decade.

Anti-Sprawl Explanation:
This report identifies regional differences in driving trends (such as rural residents driving less on average), but argues that urbanization is not a direct cause. Instead, findings point to the population shifts from less dense areas to more dense areas are playing a larger role. For instance, only recently has suburban population growth been outpaced by major metropolitan population growth. 

Future Implications

In the battle for new and innovative transportation policies, this study bolsters the voice of advocates who have long argued that the decline in driving is not a temporary situation. Transportation engineers are continually projecting larger and larger numbers of drivers into the future, and PIRG has clearly shown that those projections are not a given. This report is likely the beginning of a shift towards saner transportation choices.


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