A Hypothesis About Peak Driving

Over the last couple of years, someone notices that young people aren’t driving as much and then makes a pronouncement about the death of Car Culture. Last week in the NY Times (boldface mine):

But America’s love affair with its vehicles seems to be cooling. When adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven in the United States peaked in 2005 and dropped steadily thereafter, according to an analysis by Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives, an investment research company. As of April 2013, the number of miles driven per person was nearly 9 percent below the peak and equal to where the country was in January 1995. Part of the explanation certainly lies in the recession, because cash-strapped Americans could not afford new cars, and the unemployed weren’t going to work anyway. But by many measures the decrease in driving preceded the downturn and appears to be persisting now that recovery is under way. The next few years will be telling….

Demographic shifts in the driving population suggest that the trend may accelerate. There has been a large drop in the percentage of 16- to 39-year-olds getting a license, while older people are likely to retain their licenses as they age, Mr. Sivak’s research has found.

As always it’s those damn kids with their internets:

A study last year found that driving by young people decreased 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. The millennials don’t value cars and car ownership, they value technology — they care about what kinds of devices you own, Ms. Sheller said. The percentage of young drivers is inversely related to the availability of the Internet, Mr. Sivak’s research has found. Why spend an hour driving to work when you could take the bus or train and be online?

I think Sivak is missing a key point: driving is no longer fun except in sparsely populated areas–which are precisely those areas with poor internet penetration. Hard as it is for people to believe (or remember), driving used to be enjoyable in a lot of places. Mind you, not during rush hour or in dense, urban areas, but it’s now pretty miserable driving in suburban areas, which are quite dense–and which usually haven’t increased the capacity of the road system, especially on the back roads.

So why would car culture, in the traditional sense, thrive? Consider car commercials: most either show amenities that are useful in traffic or else feature driving late at night or in rural areas (e.g., truck commercials). They almost never feature 0 – 60 mph times, which were a mainstay of ads twenty years ago–when the hell are you ever going to accelerate like that?

Once driving primarily becomes a mode of transport and not something enjoyable, it’s no surprise that other alternatives, if available, are preferred, especially if they’re cheaper.

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5 Responses to A Hypothesis About Peak Driving

  1. C. says:

    I didn’t get a license when I was 16 because I was trying to save for university and I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford a car as a student anyway. I finally got my license last year (at 30), but I still have a hard time justifying the expense – insurance, gas, parking, maintenance, etc., when public transit is so cheap and readily available. What I’d like to see is more car-sharing services like ZipCar, which make a lot more sense for the odd times when a vehicle would be useful.

  2. Amber says:

    I got my license at 16. A car at 17. I drove a decent bit, and because I could easily drive the rural hour drive from college to home, I did. And except for winter time, it was an enjoyable drive. But you know when I stopped driving so much? When gas went up in price, and again when I stopped having as much money. Plus, I lived near Chicago- we took public transit whenever possible to avoid traffic, because omg, the Dan Ryan, the Stevenson, the [insert named expressway here] were awful. Oh, and the Illinois Tollway is quite literally highway robbery.

  3. albanaeon says:

    Some of the newer “not funness” comes from how terrible our roads have gotten. When our city discovered that differing maintenance kept budgets down and if you only did it in “unimportant” areas where you could safely ignore the complaints, our roads declined precipitously. So the councilors brag about low taxes while I’m looking at a several hundred dollars repair on our suspension. Yeah?

  4. octoploid says:

    It’s also about twice as expensive as it used to be. I found recently a receipt for gas from when I was in college, from 1993…it was $1.18 a gallon…which is about $1.89 today. The gas I bought this morning was $3.89 a gallon. Even at $1.18 a gallon, gas money was a limiting factor for my minimum wage-earning crew of friends. Considering gas is twice as expensive, but minimum wage is hasn’t grown that fast, it would definitely be cramping our style.

  5. alwayscurious says:

    When my girlfriend & I announced we weren’t getting a car to replace the last one we had, our families were aghast. They could hardly imagine life without a car–they took us car shopping to try to spark our interest, they offered money, they told us about all the places we wouldn’t be able to go. Turns out, 97% of the places we need to go have reasonable mass transit connections. The remaining 3% are a pain, but insufficient to justify a vehicle purchase. We’ve done some soul searching and will likely eventually get a small truck or a van because we like to camp in more remote regions of the state. But that is entirely a “want”, not a “need”. Given how easy it was for us to adapt to car-less life, I expect that a vehicle purchase now won’t change many of our present habits.

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