Has America’s love of the automobile peaked?

Source: Julia Pyper, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Light duty vehicles

After years on crowded roads, are Americans driving less and enjoying it more? Graphic by Michael Sivak, courtesy of the University of Michigan.

Americans have had a long love affair with their vehicles, but recent social and economic shifts suggest the intensity of the romance is waning, according to a set of studies by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

The absolute number of vehicles in the United States reached a maximum in 2008, just as the economic crisis hit. But in examining trends between 1984 and 2011, an UMTRI study shows the rate of vehicle ownership on a per-person, per-household and per-licensed-driver basis actually peaked years earlier in 2006.

There’s also been a marked decline in vehicle miles traveled. A second study finds these numbers peaked in 2004 and have since decreased by about 9 percent through 2011 on a per-person, per-household and per-licensed-driver basis.

“The fact that the peaks of these measures are earlier than 2008 throws away the economy as the culprit for the start of the reductions,” said Michael Sivak, research professor at UMTRI and author of the reports. “Economic factors clearly contribute to the current decline, but they are not the triggers or the main factors for the apparent reversal of the long-term trends of the increasing rates of vehicles and the increasing rates of miles driven.”

Percentage of younger drivers drops, while older ones drive less

Sivak suggests the change is due to increased telecommuting, higher use of public transportation, greater urbanization and changes in the ages of drivers.

According to an earlier UMTRI study, only 28 percent of 16-year-olds had driver’s licenses in 2010, compared with 44 percent in 1980. The number of 17-year-old drivers fell from 66 percent to 45 percent over the same period, and 18-year-olds from 75 percent to 61 percent.

Following a similar trend, the average number of vehicle miles traveled by those aged 16 to 34 dropped by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

A compounding effect on the number of miles traveled by car is that older drivers, who make up the majority of people on the road today, tend to drive shorter distances, which in itself is bringing down the overall number of vehicle miles traveled.

New transportation options like expanded transit systems and bike-share networks have also led to reduced vehicle use. Bicycle commuting in the U.S. increased 47 percent between 2000 and 2011 and has grown by as much as 80 percent in certain bike-friendly cities, according to Dave Hurst, research analyst at Navigant Research.

Population grows, but do sales?

In Europe, where car use has fallen even more dramatically, the electric bicycle market is starting to thrive, he added.

In response, some automakers have been finding new ways to stay relevant. Daimler AG launched the car-sharing service Car2go in 2008 that allows users to rent from a fleet of Smart Fortwo vehicles to zip around a city. Car2go launched in Washington, D.C., in March 2012.

Sivak says that he expects absolute car ownership nationwide will continue to increase, but that it will be closely tied to population growth rather than the pure aspiration of vehicle ownership. This could trigger a shift in the way car companies do business.

“I think [automakers] should be concerned. I wouldn’t be alarmed, but concerned. The fact that the population will keep increasing is still a driving factor for the increased number of vehicles and total absolute miles driven, but the fact the rates per driver appear to have peaked suggests that future increases in car sales will be dampened.”