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.

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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.