Report: America’s Love Affair With Cars is Ending

According to a just-released report from the well-respected Brookings Institution, the US is experiencing its longest and quickest decline in the amount of driving since World War Two — a decline which the report’s authors claim marks a permanent shift away from the automobile and towards other forms of transportation.


The report, The Road… Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the U.S., points out that the beginning of the current decline in driving predated the high gas prices of last summer and, as gas prices have come back down over the last few months, drivers are not going back to their cars (click the graph below for an expanded view of these statistics).

As Robert Puentes, co-author of the report says, “With important conversations underway on infrastructure spending as economic stimulus, it’s critical for the new Congress and administration to recognize the long-term implications of these travel trends and to use this as an occasion to put forth a new vision that reflects new realities and is not just more of the same.”

I’m excited that we finally seem to have realized we need to fix and expand our embarrassingly decrepit infrastructure here in the US, but I get worried when it seems like the majority of what we’re going to do is patch up existing roads and build new ones.

What if we did that and then 20 years from now people were driving half as much as they are even today? We would have wasted a ton of resources on the wrong thing.

In trying to tease out the reasons why the decline has been so steep and persistent even without the recent gas price pressure, the authors identify several:

  • Market saturation of vehicle ownership
  • A plateau in the number of women entering the workforce
  • A possible ceiling in the amount of driving any one individual can tolerate
  • Increased ridership on mass transit
  • The development of commercial centers closer to home
  • Rising unemployment

One result of such a precipituous drop in driving in the US is that revenues to repair and expand our transportation infrastructure have dried up. Most of those types of projects are funded from the various federal and state gas taxes, and with fewer drivers on the road driving less miles, those funds are at all-time lows.

According to Adie Tomer, the other report co-author, “As gas tax receipts plummet, we will have to get smarter about how we spend our transportation dollars. We cannot afford to build more roads that people simply will not use. We run the very real risk of severely misallocating scarce resources.”

I, for one, would gladly give up my daily car commute for a high speed train ride where I can surf the internet and listen to music. Who’s with me?

Image Credits: Road from Nicholas_T‘s Flickr photostream under a Creative Commons License. Graph from report referred to in this post.

Source: Green Car Congress

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.