Americans may have passed peak-driving point

Even as hybrid and electric vehicles offer an increasing array of motoring alternatives, Americans may have passed the point of peak driving. Doug Short at Advisor Perspectives has analyzed the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Commission's latest report on traffic volume trends. He finds that estimated vehicle miles driven on all U.S. roads, adjusted for population growth, has fallen 8.91% from its 2005 peak. You can read his analysis here, or access the DoT data here.

(Short uses the population aged 16 and over for his adjustment, although he suggests it might also be appropriate to use total population since many miles driven are to take younger children to school, for example.)

Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times cites Short's work as among recent studies that suggest that Americans are driving less and buying fewer cars. And I've commented earlier on the decline in the percentage of teenagers getting driver's licenses. Consequently, Rosenthal writes, researchers are pondering a fundamental question: “Has America passed peak driving?”

She notes that the recession probably accounts for some reduction in miles driven, but she quotes Michael Sivak, a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, as saying, “What most intrigues me is that rates of car ownership per household and per person started to come down two to three years before the downturn. I think that means something more fundamental is going on.”

A spring 2013 report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group puts it this way: “The Driving Boom—a six decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States—is over.”

The report continues, “The unique combination of conditions that fueled the Driving Boom—from cheap gas prices to the rapid expansion of the workforce during the Baby Boom generation—no longer exists. Meanwhile, a new generation—the Millennials—is demanding a new American Dream less dependent on driving.”

Rosenthal in the Times quotes Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center, as citing various factors that might be making driving less attractive: the Internet enables telecommuting and facilitates people staying connected without driving, the renewal of center cities has made the suburbs less appealing, and the rise in cellphones and car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements.

Rosenthal notes the trend it could have negative implications for the car industry. “Indeed,” she writes, “companies like Ford and Mercedes are already rebranding themselves 'mobility' companies with a broader product range beyond the personal vehicle.”

Of course, if we have permanently passed the peak-driving point, that only represents an American trend that is not likely to soon be mirrored worldwide. Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford, during his keynote address at the 2012 Mobile World Congress last year in Barcelona, told delegates that the number of cars on the world’s roads is forecast to grow from 1 billion now to up to 4 billion by mid-century, leading to the prospect of global gridlock.

He previewed Ford Motor’s “Blueprint for Mobility,” which calls for cooperation between the automotive and telecommunications industries to prepare for the future.

“No one company or industry will be able to solve the mobility issue alone, and the speed at which solutions take hold will be determined largely by customer acceptance of new technologies,” he said. “The telecommunications industry is critical in the creation of an interconnected transportation system where cars are intelligent and can talk to one another as well as the infrastructure around them. Now is the time for us all to be looking at vehicles on the road the same way we look at smartphones, laptops, and tablets—as pieces of a much bigger, richer network.”

Focusing on the U.S., the U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group report notes, “The time has come for America to hit the 'reset' button on transportation policy—replacing the policy infrastructure of the Driving Boom years with a more efficient, flexible and nimble system that is better able to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.”

In addition to fighting global gridlock, Ford's initiative could well be a key component of the reset the groups call for.

See related article, “Professor and former GM exec charts bright automotive future with transformational change.”

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