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Monday, April 9, 2012

Americans Driving Less; American Youth Driving Hella Less

Posted by on Mon, Apr 9, 2012 at 11:26 AM

For more than five decades, the average number of miles driven annually by Americans increased year by year, until around the turn of the century, when our driving habits suddenly headed in reverse. According to a new study released by US PIRG, American drivers logged 6 percent fewer miles in 2011 than they did 2004, a trend that is particularly pronounced in young people:

From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting – even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons – higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences – all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw those assumptions into doubt. The time has come for transportation policy to reflect the needs and desires of today’s Americans – not the worn-out conventional wisdom from days gone by.

Yes, average annual mileage may recover somewhat with the economy, but a generation of Americans have learned that the automobile is not as freeing as it's cracked up to be. According to AAA, the average total cost of car ownership was $8,776 in 2011. By comparison, a transit pass costs about $100 a month. That's a lesson that will be hard to unlearn.

The viaduct, the 520 bridge, and the 405 widening projects are all under way, but one gets the feeling that this may be the last burst of major new highway construction in the region for quite some time if ever. Meanwhile, we're about to remove lanes from the I-90 bridge, and convert them to light rail, not because car-hating socialists are engaged in social engineering, but because the people demand it.

Transportation preferences are changing, especially among young people. And slowly, our transportation policies are changing in response.


Comments (31) RSS

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SPG 35
@34, You want data? Check travelocity and try to go anywhere worthwhile. Yep. One big fucking anecdote that means you're paying more. But then how can Rupert Murdoch tell you otherwise? Because he's taking the total average of every single fucking plane ticket sold, no matter whether they were sold at the last minute for a business trip at 12 times the normal price, or sold to a middle of nowhere place that only one airline serves and charges monopoly rates.
The point here is that data in total includes all business travel and all the short haul former monopoly routes. Business and short haul monopolies routes to Podunk used to be where the airlines would gouge and make money. Comparing those to now will show you that business travel has fallen off dramatically and a lot of those monopoly routes have competition. The AVERAGE cost of all air travel may be lower, but the cost of air travel that you or I would actually use is quite a bit higher.
Posted by SPG on April 12, 2012 at 9:33 PM · Report this
@32 Ah. Yes. Anecdotal evidence. The best kind.

Even though all the facts and data - data that WSJ did not concoct out of thin air (unlike you) - clearly state air travel is cheaper over-all than ever before.

Care to cite some actual data?
Posted by tkc on April 10, 2012 at 10:28 AM · Report this
SPG 33
@29, You don't need a car to travel? No kidding. You don't need a house to live either, but it makes the experience a whole lot more pleasant. I've travelled plenty without a car in EU and Asia and it's nice, but in the US to get to a lot of the places you want to go like say...snowboarding in the's so much easier with a car. I've logged too many miles on the road to really condemn anyone else who wants to do it, but I also realize that we lose something as a culture if we become less mobile and more insulated. Travel between cities and within cities will still be possible, but it's those other places in the US that are worth seeing that are going to get lost in the transition.
Posted by SPG on April 10, 2012 at 10:22 AM · Report this
SPG 32
@26: " Air travel is cheaper now than ever before." BULLSHIT. I've flown to Tokyo several times for $400 to $500 RT ten years ago. You'd be lucky to get that flight for twice that now. I've bought a ticket at the airport in Barcelona to JFK for $320 in 1996. I've flown to EU many times and never paid over $500 until 2005. I used to fly regularly SEA to JFK for under $200 roundtrip regularly. All of these deals no longer exist.
So how can your beloved WSJ say that flying is cheaper than ever? Because a flight from Bumfucksville to Middle of Nowhere is now much lower and the business tickets are now more in line with the jacked up regular tickets instead of being five times as expensive. Real flights for real people going to real places have all doubled or more in the last ten years. There's still a few exceptions of course, but in general it costs a lot more to fly today than it did ten years ago unless you're a business traveller flying in and out before the weekend.
Posted by SPG on April 10, 2012 at 10:10 AM · Report this
Aurora Erratic 31
I think I personally account for about half of this change.
Posted by Aurora Erratic on April 10, 2012 at 4:34 AM · Report this
tainte 30
cars are awesome. i've driven hundreds of thousands of miles in my short life, and i ain't slowing down anytime soon. 4 bucks a gallon? a drop in the bucket.
Posted by tainte on April 9, 2012 at 5:31 PM · Report this
@8 You don't need a car to travel around the country. I traveled from Memphis, TN to Seattle with out ever owning a car. I've gone to France and Italy with out using a car. I've been to Minneapolis with out a car. I do own a car now but even then it almost never leaves my garage. You may need to rent or use a zip car here or there but owning a car is certainly not a requirement in this day and age.
Posted by tigntink on April 9, 2012 at 4:03 PM · Report this
We're in that no-man's land, where our transit system isn't as widespread or convenient as it needs to be (particularly nights and weekends) to get more people to ride. But unless ridership increases there won't be the political will or capital to improve the system.
Posted by bigyaz on April 9, 2012 at 2:21 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 27
But leave it to our lackluster public transit to make driving a need if you need to get around on the weekends or after 6 pm.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on April 9, 2012 at 2:15 PM · Report this
@8 Air travel is cheaper now than ever before. 21% lower in inflation adjusted dollars than in 1995 (down 43% from 1980).


Overseas travel isn't down due to costs. It's due to fear. Since 9/11 Americans have become complete insular chicken shits.
Posted by tkc on April 9, 2012 at 2:13 PM · Report this
@10 nailed it. The concept of completely "car-free" (as in not a single car, period) cities is completely ridiculous. But its obvious that as transportation improves cars will be less necessary.

Personal anecdote: I'm about to graduate UW and move to Capitol Hill and work at my job in Pioneer Square. I wouldn't want to own a car at all (Zipcar is great) except that no-one is going to take my 40-50 days a year of snowboarding and tailgating with all my friends at Stevens Pass away from me for any reason. That's an edge case, but I think we're all really aiming for less cares, not no cars.
Posted by algorhythm99 on April 9, 2012 at 2:01 PM · Report this
Come on. This doesn't reflect a change in values. Easy credit is gone. The days where you could drive a car off a lot with no down payment are over for most people. At least for people who don't have high incomes and literally spotless credit. That's what this is about.

And people are broke. Especially younger people. The potential for them to get a job that can allow them to afford a new car is next to nil.

China and India are buying cars like crazy, however.
Posted by tkc on April 9, 2012 at 2:00 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 23
@17 with SR-520 built on replaceable pontoons, it is possible for a section to sink, while not taking the entire bridge out (as we did with I-90).
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 9, 2012 at 1:52 PM · Report this
More 16-34yo's are living in their moms' basements, and as long as mom keeps restocking the fridge, why should they go anywhere?
Posted by RonK, Seattle on April 9, 2012 at 1:40 PM · Report this
I wonder how much technology plays a role. In high school I had to go to the library constantly for research, or go to friends' houses to work on projects, trips that today would be largely unnecessary.
Posted by bigyaz on April 9, 2012 at 1:26 PM · Report this
the idiot formerly known as kk 17
Yes, the 520 bridge is being widened. And after it is widened, it will have a transit/carpool lane and bike/pedestrian lanes. Two things it doesn't have now. Also, the replacement is supposedly less likely to sink to the bottom of Lake Washington within the next couple of years.
Posted by the idiot formerly known as kk on April 9, 2012 at 12:58 PM · Report this
Catherwood 15
@13 for the insight: when I was a kid, we drove places in order to be together. Now I complain to my son that he never hangs out with his friends any more, but he just points to his computer and says, "but we're all right there!". Sure, there are limits in virtual hanging-out, but it probably does contribute to some of the decline in driving/riding miles.
Posted by Catherwood on April 9, 2012 at 12:40 PM · Report this
Dougsf 14
Does the study imply anywhere that fewer young people are driving, or only that those that do drive are driving fewer miles?

Of course high gas prices and high rates of unemployment among youth must be a factor, but could it also be that once bedroom-communities are growing into small cities, and exurbs into suburbs—they (maybe) don't need to travel as far as they once did.

I would like to think that transportation preferences are changing, but it's more likely their choices are simply narrowing.
Posted by Dougsf on April 9, 2012 at 12:34 PM · Report this
pg13 13
I was young once. I grew up in central Wisconsin. I had a car.

I remember driving hundreds of miles just to get to a good record store...or a great book store...that might actually have the things I wanted to buy (and sometimes, just to look!) I remember driving hundreds of miles to go to a town that was actually showing a movie that I wanted to see before it disappeared and you'd never get a chance to see that movie again. I remember driving hundreds of miles to hang out with friends who I hadn't seen in awhile.

If I was young now...I could stay home and download any music or book that my mind could imagine I'd want. I'd have Netflix deliver movies to me or I'd stream 'em, with no worries that anything would ever "go away". And thanks to Facebook and Skype, I'd be keeping up with all of my friends every moment of their lives.

Maybe one of the reasons that young people aren't driving as much as they used to is because they don't have to...
Posted by pg13 on April 9, 2012 at 12:34 PM · Report this
internet_jen 12
Heh, I'm totally pulling the average down. I've never driven. When I was a teen I was allowed to and my father would buy me my first beater BUT I first had to get a job sans-license, and then save up for insurance, and maintain the job if I wanted to drive. There'd be no gas money, insurance money, or parts money from my dad. He would fix it though, but I had to buy the parts.

I was the youngest of three and could get rides if I needed if a sibling happened to be around. I have an August birthday so I was among the youngest in my class and all my friends got to drive before me. I'd carpool with my friend who lived down the street from me.

After high school I attended the UW and used the u-pass to commute from Tacoma to UW for two years, there was a bus from Tacoma Dome Station to the U-dist. After two years of commuting I got my first over-the-table job at McDonalds and rode a bike to and from (farming valley no hills, score!), worked 40hrs a week at minimum wage for 3 months saving all my money and then moved to the U-dist. And have barley left the city since.
Posted by internet_jen on April 9, 2012 at 12:22 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 11
When I first started my first non-military job, I bought a cheap car for $8000 that got 36 mpg.

You can buy pretty much the same thing nowadays for less than $10,000.

You don't need shiny watches (seriously, who does that?) or fancy bling cars.

Pay off your student loan, save 30 percent down for a house, and you'll be fine. Then buy one in a neighborhood CHEAPER than the one you can afford.
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 9, 2012 at 12:20 PM · Report this
Why does it always have to be so either/or when it comes to transport? I own a mechanically sound beater that I drive a couple thousand miles a year, and I have a work-subsidized metro pass, and I walk to places a lot.
Posted by ryanmm on April 9, 2012 at 12:08 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 9
Cars, even used cars, are expensive to own and operate. If you live in a city, it's even more expensive, and not particularly necessary.

I didn't have a car the first ten years I lived in Seattle. I don't even need one now, except for things like thrift shopping (most of the thrift shops are migrating out to the suburbs, following their customer base) and trips to the lumber yard and such.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on April 9, 2012 at 12:07 PM · Report this
Oh yeah, the downside to this is that without travel we'll have a less experienced and understanding population. Mark Twain said something like "Travel is fatal to prejudice". It's very true and young people need to get out and see the world. I know there's less diversity at the mall down the road, but the gas prices will keep them from going to other cities and the related rise in air travel costs will keep people from going to other countries.
Posted by SPG on April 9, 2012 at 12:06 PM · Report this
balderdash 7
Driving is stupid. It's wasteful and dangerous. Independent passenger vehicles shouldn't even be allowed inside cities.

And yes, obviously it's not feasible to just kick cars out of cities with our current infrastructure. I still think car-free cities is something to work toward, and it sounds like I'm not the only one who'd be into the idea.
Posted by balderdash on April 9, 2012 at 12:02 PM · Report this
I'm not that surprised. Youth is always more price sensitive to these kinds of things. Everyone had to chip in for gas money back in the day when gas was a buck a gallon. I couldn't imagine taking the kind of solo trips I took every weekend as a kid now that I have a lot more money, let alone if I was a kid now. Forget it.
Posted by SPG on April 9, 2012 at 12:02 PM · Report this
Most interesting to see their treatment of how much harder young people have been hit by the Great Recession. I'm astonished the overall miles traveled has stayed virtually the same since the 2007 record in spite of the tremendous downturn since. I understand trucking's share of overall miles increases a bit every year - I wonder how hard they were hit during the recession, and if they're bouncing back much yet.

Definitely a great planning opportunity - it will be interesting to see if the PIRG's assumptions about the persistence of the habits as this population ages and the economy improves hold true.
Posted by gloomy gus on April 9, 2012 at 12:01 PM · Report this
Goldy 4
@1: Yes, I know you're just a robotic troll, still, you could bother to read the posts before commenting:

From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent.

That's a long term trend that predates the current spike in gas prices. But even given that yes, gas prices surely impact driving habits, what's your point? Is gas going to get dramatically cheaper, or inevitably more expensive over time?
Posted by Goldy on April 9, 2012 at 11:57 AM · Report this
Boos 3

"The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting – even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons – higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences – all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come."
Posted by Boos on April 9, 2012 at 11:47 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 2
Look, not even one-tenth the people that currently use the Viaduct will end up using the Ten Dollar Toll Tunnel for Trillionaires.


You're better off with transit, quite frankly. Get a U Ride if you need a car for work at the UW - in a plug-in electric car you "rent" - or use the free shuttles at Microsoft, Boeing, Children's, or UW to get where you need, and either rent a truck for the weekend if you move or a car for the week for a vacation.
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 9, 2012 at 11:47 AM · Report this

Could this have anything to do with gas prices quadrupling?
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on April 9, 2012 at 11:44 AM · Report this

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