Off the Road: 8 Reasons Why We’re Driving Less

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Where'd everybody go?

In recent months, car sales have been booming at the same time that consumers have been paying more per vehicle. Because demand for cars is high, it would seem like a safe assumption that people need new wheels because we’re all driving more nowadays. Actually, the opposite is true.

A Slate post recently pointed out that VMT (vehicle miles traveled) in the U.S., which steadily rose through the ’80s and ’90s, began to plateau in the mid-’00s. Originally, the Great Recession was blamed for the shift in VMT, but the numbers have declined a bit over the past 18 months, even as the unemployment rate has dropped—and the need for the newly employed to drive to work has increased.

If not the recession, what forces are responsible for the decrease in driving? Here are eight reasons why you’re less likely to be on the road:

Telecommuting. Some 30-odd million Americans work from home at least occasionally, and the legions of telecommuters, remote workers, or whatever you want to call them are growing by the day. More telecommuting equates to less actual commuting, and therefore less driving.

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Unemployment. While the jobs market has improved, the economy is still experiencing high levels of unemployment, particularly among the so-called “Jobless Generation” of young people—folks who aren’t only less likely to be working, but less likely to be interested in owning cars at all. If you don’t have a job to drive to, you’ll probably be driving less. Interestingly enough, you’ll probably also be eating breakfast at home, thanks to what’s been described as the “unemployment-Egg McMuffin connection“, in which lower employment levels are correlated with lower restaurant breakfast sales. Again, if you don’t have a job to drive to, there’s less of a chance you’ll be swinging into the drive-thru en route to the office.

Gas Prices. Polls have shown that most Americans won’t change their lifestyle until gas tops $5 per gallon. But, even if they don’t represent the majority, there are signs that a significant number of consumers have already changed their behavior due to rising gas prices. Leisure travelers are quite likely to have tweaked their summer travel plans: In a recent survey, 44% of travelers said they’d take fewer trips because of prices at the pump, while more than one-third said they’d be staying closer to home to keep gas costs under control. In California, perennially among the most expensive states for gas, fuel consumption has been dropping month after month thanks to more fuel-efficient cars and less driving overall.

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Traffic. (Speaking of California!) Gridlock has “gripped America” at least as far back as 1988. But we didn’t know how good we had it in the ’80s. The most recent Texas Transportation Institute study holds that the average commuter is now delayed 34 hours annually, up from 14 hours in 1982. As the economy improves, more cars take to the road, and more traffic can be expected: Commuters are anticipated to experience three more hours of delays by 2015 and seven more wasted hours in 2020. The report calls for more investment in roads, but workers and consumers alike are taking their own proactive steps to deal with traffic, mostly by steering clear of it entirely.

Online Shopping. One way to sidestep traffic, crowds—and often, sales tax—is by shopping on the Internet instead of hopping in a car and heading to the store. E-commerce rose by 15% over the recent winter holidays, blowing away the 4% revenue increase in brick-and-mortar stores. As consumers grow even more accustomed to shopping online for everything from diapers to men’s razors, more and more errands can be handled in front of a screen, rather than behind a steering wheel.

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Internet & Technology in General. As the Associated Press and others have pointed out, the rise of the Internet, text-messaging, and social media has coincided with a decline in the percentage of young Americans with driver’s licenses, and in driving overall. One of the authors of a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study tracking the trend said plainly that in countries where “more people use the Internet, there is a lower proportion of drivers.” In the past, automobiles have represented freedom and a means to connect and socialize. Nowadays, though, people are more likely to feel connected via Facebook and smartphones.

Home Entertainment. No wonder fewer people are going to the movies: After dropping big money on Netflix subscriptions, video game consoles, home theater systems, on-demand services, man caves, and ever-more expensive cable bills, there’s not much reason—or money left over—to seek entertainment outside the home.

Shift to Urban Living. When the housing market collapsed in the Great Recession, it tended to fall hardest in the areas far from city centers—the exurbs where new subdivisions had been multiplying in the ’90s and 2000s. Over the last few things, sprawl has finally started to crawl, as populations have grown fastest in areas closest to cities, and more people have decided (or were forced) to rent. It’s in or near the big cities that rentals and jobs are easiest to find, and where the cost of living—and need to fill up the car—remains low. According to data collected by USA Today, growth in counties with major metropolitan centers accounts for 94% of all U.S. population growth, compared to 85% before the Great Recession. By and large, millenials prefer living in urban settings with stores and things to do in walking distance, so the big shift back from the ‘burbs is a trend that’s likely to continue.

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Great Public Transportation. Ha! Joking, of course. The U.S. has its best and worst cities for public transportation, but overall, the vast size of the U.S. and decades of policy focused on highways and roads have left us with less-than-ideal public transit options in most parts of the country.

But just imagine how much less Americans would be driving if we really did have access to good public transportation.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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