What Happens When We Reach ‘Peak Car’?

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Despite several strong months of new-car sales in a row, the average American is driving less and less each year. Drivers have been hitting the road less for years in countries such as France, Spain, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan as well. Could it be that car usage has peaked?

An article published over the summer by Scientific American discussed the possibility that the U.S. may have reached “peak car,” the term academics have used to describe the point at which car ownership and miles driven per vehicle level off, and then decline. For a variety of reasons, including a rise in unemployment, telecommuting, and online shopping, vehicle miles traveled (or VMT) has dropped during the Great Recession years.

A recent story in the Economist points out that, in fact, the average amount driven by Americans actually began to plateau in the early ’00s. In other developed countries, such as Britain, Japan, and Germany, the average miles (or “kilometers,” for the Economist’s European readers) driven per vehicle have been dropping at least since 1990:

A March 2012 study for the Australian government—which has been at the forefront of international efforts to tease out peak-car issues—suggested that 20 countries in the rich world show a “saturating trend” to vehicle-kilometres travelled. After decades when each individual was on average travelling farther every year, growth per person has slowed distinctly, and in many cases stopped altogether.

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What’s more, while drivers accustomed to clogged roads in major metropolitan areas may beg to differ, there are indications that road traffic in the U.S. is also on the decline. Speaking to Scientific American, Jim Bak, of the research firm INRIX, said that congestion on the roads fell by 27% last year. He also made the case that, in a way, the sight of traffic should actually make American consumers happy:

“The interesting thing about it is if you’re out there and stuck in traffic every day, it’s probably a good sign that our economy is humming along,” he said. “But when the economy is down, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, you’ll have a little better commute but your retirement fund probably isn’t doing so well.”

The rise of part- and full-time telecommuters is easing traffic, as are, unfortunately, the legions of those without jobs to commute to. USA Today has reported on how fewer Americans are commuting solo, and how public transportation use is soaring—two trends that are obviously connected, and that are obviously connected to higher gas prices.

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If and when the economy kicks back into high gear, car usage and average and overall miles driven may very well rebound. Then again, maybe they won’t.

Going forward, technology and huge generational shifts may result in less car ownership and fewer and fewer miles driven, at least in rich countries, according to the Economist. Americans are getting their driver’s licenses later or sometimes not at all, and young people in Norway, South Korea, Sweden, Canada, France, and other countries are also in no hurry to get behind the wheel. The trend is directly correlated to increased usage of the Internet and social media: In countries where young people are on the web a lot (and can therefore “connect” virtually, without driving anywhere), the percentage of youth that bother to get driver’s licenses is below normal.

Whereas millennials tend to view automobiles as mere appliances—unnecessary, pricey ones that they’ll try to avoid, via car sharing and a shift to urban living—the oldest drivers on the road came of age in the era of car culture and the U.S. highway system. Today, there’s a higher portion of drivers than are 70+ than 18-year-olds with licenses.

(MORE: The Case for Optimism: 5 Ways the World Is Getting Better)

What will the future look like? The predictions call for everything from an increased shift from the suburbs back into cities in the U.S., better and more widely available public transportation, and even the rise of driverless cars. Automakers are likely to step up efforts to sell even more cars in developing nations, where demand is expected to rise for quite some time. What we probably won’t see, however — and this is a good thing — is an increase of solo commuters stuck one after another in miles and miles of traffic on U.S. roads.

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.

55 comments
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peakchoicedotorg
peakchoicedotorg

The price of petroleum went up and traffic growth ended, as predicted (at least by those paying attention to energy supplies).

On the downslope of petroleum past Peak(ed) Oil, traffic will continue to decline.   Moderately efficient cars are unlikely to mitigate this fact much.

Federally funded highway projects have to factor in traffic demand two decades in the future.  It's anyone's guess how much oil and traffic there will be in the 2030s, but clearly much less than current levels.  The US Department of Energy recently published estimates that known oil supplies globally will allow for about half of the oil flows in 2030 that we enjoy today.

The real transportation concern is not private cars but food delivery.    Relocalizing food production should be the top priority.  Tear up your lawn and learn to grow some of your family's food.

details:  peaktraffic dot org

Colin
Colin

Telecommuting is certainly a great way to avoid a lot of driving. This is now easier than ever before as TransparentBusiness.com was created to seamlessly and in real time allow employers to track all tasks assigned to those who telecommute. The end result is more faith in the telecommuting system and a lot less cars on the road.

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Anthony Kovic
Anthony Kovic

I drive because I have to .... there is no pleasure in commuting on clogged arteries, sharing the road with rude drivers, or paying all the high  costs associated with owning and operating a vehicle.

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

"Peak car" HAH!

 Try over fifteen million people out of work and so NOT commuting to JOBS. That's just the start of why fewer miles are being driven.

Muriel Heslop
Muriel Heslop

Practically, making ends meet only by telecommunicating seems to be almost impossible in Japan at this stage.  but I wish this tendency will increasingly continue.

Russell A
Russell A

I would drive more if I could afford it.  

echosyst
echosyst

There is no shift from the suburbs back to cities as much as liberals want that to be true. The data does not support that assertion. Any city that is safe to live in which also has good schools is unaffordable to average people. The rest are mismanaged dumps with a poor quality of life.

danlunche
danlunche

I ride a bicycle. Of course, that isn't really an option for most fat slob Americans.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

 That right there?  That's why regular people hate cyclists.

fredcpa1962
fredcpa1962

i commute 42 miles. how far is yours? wanna ride 42 miles everyday?

danlunche
danlunche

Think how good you would look.

Jon Gibson
Jon Gibson

Why'd you choose to work so far from where you live?  Or live so far from where you work?  No choice?  America - The Land of Choices

IQMinusOne
IQMinusOne

The mode of transportation has a lot to do with ideology. Collectivism prefers mass transit while individualism chooses cars.

If highways were replaced with mass transit, would that speed up socializing America?

bdkennedy11
bdkennedy11

Or... just maybe... Let me take a stab at this... NO ONE CAN AFFORD THE GAS ANYMORE.

Mickey Cashen
Mickey Cashen

Gee, you think gasoline going from around $1.62 before 2008 to $3 and $4 might have something to do with it.  I take a nephew to a college for preparatory music lessons.  It costs me about $10 per trip to do it now compared to $4-$5 previously. That works out to an extra $200 per year.  Other people are cutting out similar things if they're not necessary.

rtrMicky
rtrMicky

It is becoming too expensive to own and drive a personal car. Especially for the younger generations. High purchase prices coupled with high fuel and insurance costs will drive more amp; more people away from owning a car.

Ruth Raynor
Ruth Raynor

22 year old here. Between paying all my other bills I don't have any spare cash for driving lessons. If I did and got my licence, I wouldn't have any spare cash for a vehicle or insurance or fuel. But I live in London, so I don't need to drive. I happily walk everywhere, with the knowledge that should I get too tired or be in a hurry or have something heavy to carry, there's always the bus or the tube.

Andrewlh
Andrewlh

I use mass transit as much as possible.  usually better than fighting for a spot in the parking deck. I generally only drive on the weekends.

Jack White
Jack White

We have a real unemployment rate of 20%. And you say people are driving less? Incredible!

fredcpa1962
fredcpa1962

when obama is done fundamentally transforming america, just think, there wont be ANY cars! i can hardly wait.

Derek W. West
Derek W. West

yeah... starving to death on a communal farm wearing my one peace jumpsuit singing hymns to our dear leader... that comrade, is true utopia

Jeff Schneider
Jeff Schneider

Get real.  I don't really believe Mitt will make us do that.

Not so
Not so

It really is kind of dumb to not mention gas prices.  I'd think that's the main catalyst right now.  Many don't drive on long trips because it's cheaper to fly.

blackhat
blackhat

It's all in the posts. There is less driving because the government is less of a government. Poor leaders, bad future and an America lead by small brained narcissist.  Greed is all there is in life!

BillWalters
BillWalters

But hold on: Aren't folks like you *clamoring* for less government? Make up your mind.

fredcpa1962
fredcpa1962

you miss the point guy. what he means is an overarching stifling central government is "less" of a government; in qualitative terms. as the founders knew and documented. that "more" government, i.e. better government is a smaller centralized gov and the most responsive and "best" gov is the local gov. responding to folks needs more quickly and efficently. there ya go.  i assume you understood that right?

want_2_spoilu
want_2_spoilu

Highways are the internet of the 1950's.  May they rest in peace.  Good riddance pollution.

Mimihaha
Mimihaha

I haven't owned a car since 1990 and yes, I do live in the US. I just find ownership in a major metro area unsustainable. I use transit, I belong to a carshare and I rent a car every couple of years or so. 

hARRY bALLS
hARRY bALLS

Dumest story EVER!!!!  One reason it has declined, GAS PRICES PERIOD!!!!!!!  Anyone that says otherwise is fooling themselves and living in a dreamland.

AM
AM

I say otherwise and can directly contradict your statement. My husband and I just moved to an urban area with excellent public transportation and walkability, sold one of our cars and don't have to use the other one every day but it had nothing to do with the price of gas. It's about livability and quality of life for us and I suspect, for others too.

fredcpa1962
fredcpa1962

urban areas always remind me of livability. great public schools. lots of green space. kids can ride their bikes safely. a yard you can ternd to. some grass to mow. low crime.  yeah, i see that as a good plan for all of us.

Jeff Schneider
Jeff Schneider

Actually, my quality of life is much higher in the city than it was in affluent suburbs.  I CAN walk or ride a bike to get groceries or go to restaurants.  I don't have to spend hours on soul-destroying expressway commutes.  Life is better is so many other ways that I can't even list them here...

AM
AM

I guess you're being sarcastic, but when it comes to Portland we really do enjoy all those things.  I wouldn't have moved here otherwise.

Derek W. West
Derek W. West

I truly do enjoy being sexually abused when on a crowded bus.  It's crazy the people who just cop a feel...

Tomas_Vegas
Tomas_Vegas

They controlled for that, Mr. Balls.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

"If and when the economy kicks back into high gear, car usage and average and overall miles driven may very well rebound. Then again, maybe they won’t."

Well, there's some incisive analysis.  Thanks very much, TIME.

peakchoicedotorg
peakchoicedotorg

Oil supplies have reached the maximum physically possible levels, so total vehicle miles travelled have also peaked.

Denial, on the other hand, is a limitless resource.

us_1776
us_1776

You don't need to drive to get on FB.

.

bwshook
bwshook

If I only had to pay $1.99/gal. for gas, I (and many more Americans) would be traveling more.  I reached my "peak" at $2.99/gal.--it's as simple as that.

fredcpa1962
fredcpa1962

relax. obamas not allowing any drilling anymore. no more permits. so there wont be much gas soon. so you'll have company. only the rich will be able to afford it, or his bundlers. oh and those folks who can afford a 47K electric car that you subsidized with your tax d0llars that they lose 40K on with each sale. sucker.

bwshook
bwshook

 Hello, idiot.  I made no reference to electric cars (which I guarantee YOU subsidized, NOT me).  You're the sucker.

fredcpa1962
fredcpa1962

relax dude. of course you dont pay any taxes. i was joking. we both know you dont have a job. its your kids that'll be paying the chinese for it, with lots of interest. they'll be the suckers. dang man, realx and stay cool!

bwall
bwall

We have been driving less because we are tired of getting screwed over at the pump for no reason.Why is gas so high when there is no disruption, threat of disruption, or supply issues?

Adam Jaster
Adam Jaster

actually gas price in the USA when compared to the rest of the globe is quite low

Pppa
Pppa

Artificial supply and demand foisted on us by Big Oil. Limited number of refineries due to nearly total denial of  construction permits since early 70s, due to environmental lobby. Largest contributors to the environmental movement? Big Oil (check their annual reports!). Hence, reduced refinery production and increased gasoline prices due to artificial supply and demand...

peakchoicedotorg
peakchoicedotorg

The oil companies are not going to build more refineries when supplies are entering irreversible decline.

US oil production / extraction peaked in 1971.

The North Slope of Alaska started in 1977.  It peaked in 1988 at over two million barrels a day.  It's now down to just over half a million a day.  When it declines a little further it will be difficult to pump it in the Arctic winter.   The "NPR" in northwest Alaska, opened by Clinton Gore in 1998, was originally thought to have ten billion barrels -- now the best estimate is about 800 million (8% of the original guess).  The "ANWR" in northeast Alaska has a billion, maybe two.   Prudhoe Bay has had over 16 billion extracted.

Shale oil and fracking has had a moderate increase of US production, but only a small amount compared to the total.  We'll never get back to the ten million a day the US had in 1971.  This isn't the fault of Republicans or Democrats or environmental groups or oil companies.  It's physics and geology.

Another fun fact:  the easiest to extract, cheapest oil is now being replaced by the difficult to extract, more expensive oil that is often of lower quality.  The low hanging fruit is over.

It's going to be interesting to watch the blame game on the downslope.

Michael Frost
Michael Frost

Because we pay a world market price for our oil and gasoline. Taxes are what make gas prices higher in other countries.

lokiii
lokiii

No the government allowed investment companies to start speculating on it when the could not before.  You have investors who buy and sell oil futures who will never have a hand in producing, shipping, refining, or  consuming it.  Before you had customers and providers, when the government allowed middlemen into the picture the only way they make money is by shafting one or both of the aforementioned groups. 

bettman1
bettman1

And what about the TWO largest growing car users in the world, INDIA AND CHINA !!  until they come close to peak usage (in like 50 years) they will more than make up for the decline in the rest of the world !!!!!