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Americans Are Ditching Driving

After sixty years of growth, it looks like the American appetite for driving may finally be sated. A new report from US PIRG shows Americans are driving fewer miles for the first time in history, largely thanks to the changing habits of apparently car-shy millenials: Young people drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001.

Americans travelled more than three trillion miles in 2007 but have since climbed down that peak. Some of this can be attributed to the Great Recession: poorer Americans had less money to spend on gas, especially as gas prices rose. But economic factors alone do not fully explain the trend. As PIRG points out, a generational shift is underway. Baby boomers are retiring, taking cars off the road as they end their career-long commutes. The millennials who are replacing them in the work force are more willing to take public transportation, more likely to live in denser urban areas, and more enthusiastic adopters of commuting alternatives like telework.

That will save the country money. In 2011, traffic congestion cost the US $121 billion in lost time and wasted gas. Fewer cars on America’s roads also means fewer dollars spent on maintaining and expanding those roads. Money that would have gone toward road infrastructure can instead be spent on improving the country’s infostructure, expediting the country’s transition to an information economy.

Greens will like this news. One quarter of America’s carbon emissions comes from the transportation sector. Taking cars off the road will decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality.

As driverless car technology grows in sophistication and telework takes off, much of what we take for granted about America’s car culture will change.

[Abandoned car image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Steve Zimo

    Roads deteriorate whether cars use them as much or not. Weather and truck traffic take a toll. Fewer car miles driven means less gasoline tax collected. How are roads to be properly maintained?

    I also wonder whether the acceptance of driverless car technology may actually increase driving as older citizens who would normally cut down on or stop driving might now be safely chauffeured by their driverless cars.

  • Kavanna

    This isn’t totally unprecedented. Something similar, on a much smaller car base, happened in the Depression.

    This trend is strictly a function of the Millennials being pushed out of the labor force and not working as much as previous generations at the same age. If and when the labor market improves, the driving trend will resume its previous course.

  • Jim Luebke

    You can thank Cash for Clunkers for this blip on the graph, as the premeditated destruction of capital goods wreaks havoc on the capacity of the poor to provide transportation for themselves.

    In turn, lack of reliable transportation is damaging their ability to find work.

    Way to go, Greens.

  • RedWell

    Hey wait – I thought VM staunchly supported suburban living and raised serious questions about big, expensive public transit projects. Now that Millenials tend to eschew the former and accept the latter, it’s a money and carbon saving strategy?

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