Turning the Corner on Driving?

Nate Silver, a Freakonomics favorite, wonders if the American car culture is finally coming to an end. Silver points out that Americans drove much less this January than last January, even less than expected in a bad economy with high unemployment. Part of the decrease may be explained by a delayed response to last summer’s high gas prices, but Silver also cites evidence of a potential sea change in Americans’ attitudes toward driving. [%comments]


"..Silver also cites evidence of a potential sea change in Americans' attitudes toward driving."

I don't think so - it's the cars people fall in love with, and as far as I can tell it's still going on.


Perhaps it is changing. But I love my car. I love taking road trips. I'd drive to work every day if it weren't for the prohibitive cost of all-day parking in a downtown area.

Just this week there I saw an article saying I could potentially save $10K a year by going without a car. But that study (like many others before it) blatantly ignored the lost value of my time wasted sitting on public transit. Taking the bus to and from work every day, including driving to the park-n-ride, takes about an hour and a half each leg of the trip, from door to door. I can make the drive to work in half that time. Plus there's the cost of extra time associated with the logistics of having my car located nowhere near me should I need it.


I don't drive to work and I don't ever plan to. I ride my bike and take the bus. It's a 45 minutes ride, but I never need to go to the gym. If I take the bus, I can read, watch videos, or even work the whole time. Yes it takes about 20-30 minutes longer each way than if I drove, but I get home much less stressed. I live in Austin though.

If you live in a suburb somewhere, everything Erin says is true because the place you're living was built on the assumption that everyone can and will drive anywhere they need to go. The suburbs are killing us.


Erin, I get to use the time I spend on public transit to read. Other passengers play video games and write or study. Can't do those in your car without being a safety hazard, neh? The time --and for my commute, it's no longer than driving and finding parking -- is only wasted if you make it that way.


I see Erin's point, however one could counter that by saying an individual can equalize the "lost time" spent on the bus by being productive with the time spent sitting there. You can't read or write while driving a car. The Washington Post once profiled a guy who worked on his book on the metro. If you have an iPhone, it's a great time to catch up the internet reading you would otherwise use as a time-waster at work or home.


I think it's less about choice and more about economics. A lot of people have lost their jobs, can't afford gas/insurance or have had their vehicle reposessed or sold it for rent $$. Americans still love our cars, we just can't afford them right now. Now where is my snuggie and library card? The cable goes next...


Owning a vehicle just for commuting seems silly. I think I'm buying a truck next time. I'm tired of being dependent on others when I need to move something.


I could probably save quite a big by going completely without a car, but it's paid off and so my only fixed costs are registration, insurance, and depreciation. That's worth it to me to be able to up and go on a road trip, or make a run to Costco, even though I only put about 3,000mi a year on my car and bike the rest.

I'm young and healthy and would exercise anyway so I can't really call fitness a benefit of it, though it gives me leisure time (if I ride 20 miles for commuting purposes, I won't mind missing a 6 mile run in the evening), counts as leisure in and of itself, and I save a couple bucks a day in gas and assorted wear and tear on the bike. Of course, the new commuting bike I'm about to buy will more than eat up the rest of my gas savings for the coming year.


I love the comments here about the value of time "wasted" while riding on public transit. What do drivers get accomplished while sitting behind a wheel in bumper to bumper traffic? Last year I read several dozen books during the time I "wasted" on public transit.


Maybe in the city, but unbeknowenst to mypoic urban lefties, people are still driving elsewhere.


For 75% + of Americans, cars have become a commodity which is why Honda, Toyota and pickup trucks have done well in the North American market. Generally speaking those cars are boring and utilitarian, but reliable and a good value.

For the rest of us, our identity or our passions are in some obvious or subtle way reflected in what we drive. I'm willing to pay more to drive a car with more style and power than a Honda Civic, but I'm in the minority which is why the two brand solution (e.g. Toyota/Lexus or Ford/Lincoln) will be the model for the early 21st century. Commodity cars for the masses and something better, but more costly, for the rest.

David Chowes, New York City

Since WWII, our country has transformed independence into greed. So, we eskew mass transportation as we drive our car(s), usually with just the driver in each auto.

This wastes enrergy, auto costs and helps to destroy the environment,

Why? Materialistic selfishness and greed.

As European nations, Japan and other countries have improved their national transportation systems (e.g., bullet trains with an emphasis on comfort, new lines), we have destroyed our passenger train system and not done routine maintenence.. Fewer tracks, routes, slower and fewer trains, dirty and uncomfotable...

So out of individual selfishness and corporate greed by using lobbyists... (remember electic trolleys replaced by GM with GM buses as tracks in practically all major cities were torn up?). California had one of the most comprehensive trolley networks in the country. Now, they are all gone.

Maybe this economic downturn will waken up our country. And, we will understand that greed cannot last forever and
as a result, our new values will bring us more (not less)



Having lived in upstate NY for four years, I've learned that five feet of snow will fall, it's just a matter of when. Could January '09 have had more inclement weather than January '08? It is a real bummer to tool about in the snow.


Its fine to do something "productive" when you are on public transportation. However, if you get off work at 6:00pm and your children need to be in bed by 8:00pm, then it makes a heck of a lot of difference whether your commute is one or two hours. What you are doing during that time is almost completely irrelevant.

David Leppik

Looking at the graph, the downturn doesn't seem to be much different from other historical fluctuations away from the predicted driving patterns. In other words, there's no reason to believe that attitudes toward driving are permanently changing.


David @12,

I've lived in the greater NYC area and know how good the public transportation is there, but I suspect you've never lived in the Rockies where I am. In fact, I wonder how often you get west of the Hudson or north of Westchester. Public transportation is unworkable where I am for the vast majority of people. Population densities are simply too low and geographic barriers too formidable for a Subway, let alone a European-style rail and bus network.

I'm all for dense, walkable communities where possible, but for the many millions of existing homes, we need to have solutions that work with the existing infrastructure. Bulldozing most of the country and starting over isn't feasible. To say my housing decision is about selfishness is not to understand the constraints I face.

Vincent Clement

David Chowes,

Except the Europeans and Japanese have also been busy building new expressways for motor vehicles. What does that say about protecting the environment or wasting energy?


Down cycle, not end. it would take something much larger than temporarily high gas prices and a down economy to kill the car.

Brad Hicks

If there is a decline in miles driven, I wonder if it's related to the fact that the foreclosure crisis is hitting some of the farthest from work exurbs the hardest? Are tens of thousands of foreclosed middle class people with jobs being forced, by their inability to afford anything farther out, to move closer to work? It's just speculation, I know, but has anybody checked whether the decline in miles driven is because of fewer shopping trips, fewer recreational trips, or shorter commutes?


'Myopic urban lefties'. Ha! One of the pleasures of my small-town existence is having everything in easy biking distance. I had an hour long commute to work, and it was time and money wasted. Now my work is 10 minutes away, and the quality of life shot up dramatically.