There’s no doubt that Americans travel often, and travel far. However, a new study suggests that back in 2003, we hit “peak travel,” and since then much of the developed world has cut back on commuting. Wonder why?
You’ve surely heard of peak oil, which is when the maximum extraction of oil is reached and oil production declines from there. Peak travel is the same idea; we have traveled as much as we’re going to travel, and from here on, people will supposedly travel less in developed countries. The study didn’t just take a look at America, but Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden. The researchers wanted to compare miles traveled per-person a year with GDP growth. As expected, from 1970 to 2003, miles traveled rose with an increase in GDP. But something happened in 2003 in America, and other nations. The GDP continued to rise (at least for a few more years…) but miles traveled leveled off, or in some cases even dropped.
There is no simple answer, although the researchers offer a few reasons as to why this is happening. In America, there are more vehicles than licensed drivers, and there are 700 cars for every 1,000 people. How is that possible? Small businesses often have fleets of vehicles, and some people (like me) own more than one vehicle. This also contributes to the average of 16,155 miles of motorized traveled by Americans every year.
In other countries, car ownership is closer to 500 cars per 1,000 people, but even that’s quite a few vehicles. Most other countries travel between 6,000 and 10,000 miles in motorized vehicles, to give you an idea of how much America outpaces the rest of the world in getting around. Automobiles have been being built en masse for over 100 years, and while many are scrapped and recycled, a lot of cars get passed down, stored away, or are just driven relentlessly for decades. I know more a guy who has driven the same Pinto for more than three decades without exploding. Crazy, I know.
Other reasons are an aging, less-mobile population (damn Baby Boomers), traffic congestion, and rising fuel costs. I’m sure the recent economic crunch has put a dent in miles traveled too. This is good news if you like to breathe, because it could mean that with fewer cars on the road, a large source of emissions are getting less use.
Of course, this study left both metaphorical elephants in the room; India and China. I know the Chinese have taken to cars like flies to honey, and they’re already experiencing the unenviable hell that is traffic congestion. I’ve also seen video of India’s roads, and I can’t see how they could cram one more car on those roads, so maybe they’ll find a better way to get around.
Take what you will from this study; it does give me a slight slice o’ hope that maybe things are changing for the better, no matter how crappy things may be feeling.
Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to Hemis. You can follow his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout.