Good news, everyone: Americans are driving less. Not only are fewer people driving now than a decade ago, those who do drive are accumulating fewer miles behind the wheel. Praise Mother Earth: we’re finally doing something environmentally responsible. Just like we’re also eating less sugar and tracking our daily movements via FitBit. I don’t know why we’re still so collectively overweight.
I’ve looked at the data from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a reputable organization, and while I don’t necessarily dispute their data or their conclusions, the whole report gives off a distinct aroma of truthiness.
According to the PIRG study, “the average American drives 7.6 percent fewer miles today  than when per-capita driving peaked in 2004.” This trend isn’t isolated, PIRG says; the downshift has taken place in the 100 largest urban areas across the country. The decrease in driving is coupled with an increase in the number of people working at home, a decrease in the percentage of two-car households, and an increase in public transportation use and bicycle commuting. So it’s a multi-pronged sea change. There do seem to be an awful lot of bikes on the road these days.
Look: I want it to be true, but it pays to be cautious. The study looks only at urban areas, not the exurban areas that are now booming again thanks to cheap oil and a resurgence in the stock market and new housing starts after the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. It also doesn’t factor in changing demographics, such as the graying of America. The baby boomers are retiring, ergo, they are not driving to work every day. Generation X is a smaller cohort, and the millennials are mostly out of work or still in college. Also, since the study was published a year ago, the price of gas has plunged and it looks like it’s going to stay low for awhile.
Still. Let’s give the study a chance.
I can’t help but think the decline in car ownership may also correlate with the rise in poverty:
Overlap: Mere coincidence, or evidence of something nefarious going on—as in people driving less because they can’t afford to?
Moving on. Let’s get to the details:
What’s the city with the largest drop in vehicle-miles traveled per capita between 2006 and 2011? New Orleans! Doesn’t take a climate scientist to surmise that a mitigating factor in this statistic goes by the name of Katrina.
However, the second and third largest drops took place in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. One a blue-collar bastion with a surprisingly walkable downtown, the other a hotbed of liberal activism teeming with thousands of fresh-faced and optimistic students. Spots four and five belong to Pennsylvania: Harrisburg and Pittsburgh respectively. Again, one a blue-collar bastion and the other a walkable urban area with lots of students. Milwaukee will be getting a high-speed rail system in 2016 and Pittsburgh already has light rail, so props to PA and WI. Credit where credit is due.
And I don’t have a problem with PIRG’s conclusion:
“The time has come for cities and states to shift their transportation priorities away from investments in expensive, unnecessary new highways, and toward the maintenance and repair of our existing infrastructure and the development of new transportation choices for Americans.”
Add to all of this the meteoric rise of Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, Megabus, and Citi Bike: Young people are finding it cost-effective to ride-share and use pedal power. Maybe America’s transportation habits are finally, really changing.
Think about it: Americans are buying different cars today than 10 years ago, when Hummers were status symbols and super-sized SUVs were barrelling down the freeway, guzzling unleaded like it was free beer at a frat party. Nowadays, even your grandmother drives a Prius, and you can find a plug-in parking spot for your Nissan Leaf or your Chevy Volt in any public library parking lot.
But this is where the truthiness creeps into the equation.
We all know consumers are more conscious than ever about fuel economy and their carbon footprint. Right? In 2004, Ford sold 939,511 F-Series pickup trucks—a record that still stands for the venerable make and model. The next top-selling cars were the Chevy Silverado and the Ford Explorer—both models with plenty of testosterone and bad gas mileage (about 15 mpg for the Ford truck, 16 mpg for the Silverado, and 15 mpg for the Explorer).
Fast forward to 2013. What are the top-selling vehicles in the U.S. of A? The Ford F-150, the Chevy Silverado and the Toyota Camry. In this case, I think people got perturbed with the Explorer’s constant tire blow-outs and rollovers. But trucks remain the sales winners.
Okay, I’m pessimistic about this new “trend,” but you don’t have to believe me. Even the New York Times agrees with PIRG in their article “Young Americans Lead Trend to Less Driving”:
“Younger people are less likely to drive—or even to have driver’s licenses—than past generations for whom driving was a birthright and the open road a symbol of freedom. Research by Michael Sivak of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan found that young people are getting driver’s licenses in smaller numbers than previous generations.
Online life might have something to do with the change, he suggested. ‘A higher proportion of Internet users was associated with a lower licensure rate,’ he wrote in a recent study. ‘This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people.’”
Here’s a chart to back that up:
However, young people are less likely to have after-school jobs now than in previous generations and more likely to have parents willing to play taxi. What happens when these young people grow up and have children who need to go to daycare? Theoretically, you can do this on a bike, but I just don’t see it happening in Butte, Montana, in the middle of winter. There simply wouldn’t be enough cup holders for everyone, not to mention the lack of heated seats.
All of this is to say, I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. I’m a long-time fan of mass transit and ready for the sea change.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.