10 April 2012 – More evidence has emerged that Americans are driving less – showing a massive 23 reduction in car use in the case of young people, and taking to their bicycles instead.

In Australia Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy of Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute were first to call the end of peak car use in an article in The Fifth Estate in May last year that looked at global trends .

Now the US federation of state Public Interest Research Groups has the evidence that car driving is down. In research released on 5 April, US PIRG finds that the trend is not solely the result of the economic downturn.

Even well heeled young people are living without the car dependence of the past:

From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004.

The trend away from driving has been led by young people.

From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles travelled by young people (16 to 34 year olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 per cent.

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.

The recession has played a role in reducing the miles driven in America, especially by young people.

People who are unemployed or underemployed have difficulty affording cars, commute to work less frequently, if at all, and have less disposable income to spend on traveling for vacation and other entertainment.

The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.

America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw that assumption into doubt.

Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy – dominated by road building – is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans.

It is time for policy-makers to consider the implication of changes in driving habits for the nation’s transportation infrastructure decisions and funding practices, and consider a new vision for transportation policy that reflects the needs of 21st century America.

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DC Streetblog said in an article on the report:

The trend toward non-automobile transportation options was even more pronounced among higher-income Americans, notable because this group is less likely to be motivated by economic concerns.

“From 2001 to 2009, young people (16- to 34-year-olds) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 per cent, biking by 122 per cent, and walking by 37 percent.”

A number of factors are thought to be contributing to the trend. Some states now require “graduated” driver’s licensing, making young people pass multiple driving tests and hold learner’s permits longer before they earn full privileges.

Higher gas prices, obviously, help put owning a car out of reach for many younger Americans, especially as the age group struggles in a less-favourable job market. Finally, technology, specifically smartphones, and their incompatibility with (safe) driving, help make alternatives that much more inviting.

The pervasiveness of the data suggests a larger cultural shift away from automobile use and sprawling communities among younger generations, the report concludes.

Of course, the American political system has yet to catch up to, or even fully comprehend, this sea change.

“Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy ominated by road building—is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans,” the authors write.

”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.”

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