Peak Travel?

Call me a skeptic about the “peak oil” story. Human ingenuity has always found ways to produce more of, find substitutes for, or discover ways to do without a scarce resource when price signals tell us to. But if peak oil is true, doesn’t one good peak deserve another? Why not meet peak oil head on with its dreaded natural enemy: peak travel?

At the risk of oversimplification, American history in the 20th century basically comes down to four “C’s”: communications (phone and TV), computers, cars and contraception. Though a graph showing the impact of the pill on American mating habits might be more interesting, here’s one I pulled together on the colossal growth of driving over the course of the last century:

All this motion may cheer you, since travel is a prerequisite for many, many of the things that make life worth living: work, school, shopping, social life and entertainment, to name but a few. On the other hand, the graph tells a negative story too: with all that driving has come lots of congestion, crashes and CO2.

If the latter problems are your focus, there is hope: take a look at the far right side of the graph. The growth in VMT/person started to tail off in the year 2000, and contrary to everything history has taught us, from 2005 to 2008 VMT/person actually dropped each year. As of 2008, we were driving about the same amount per person that we were in 1998. (2009 numbers aren’t in my data set, but stats from the Federal Highway Administration show the phenomenon continued, with 2009 per capita travel below 2008 levels.)

Does the stagnation in car travel in the 2000s represent a statistical quirk, or evidence that a century of automania is coming to an end?

A pair of papers-one from Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institution, and one from researchers Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper of Stanford University-have come out on this phenomenon. With their help, what can we speculate about the causes for and durability of the mysterious phenomenon of peak travel? More next time.

(HT: Brad Morris and Melinda Burns of Miller-McCune)

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  1. Max says:

    Is commercial trucking included in the index? I’d also like to see a cost/mile weighted index, as well as a speed/mile weighted one.

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  2. Frank Vasquez says:

    The graph you posted suggests that consumers do cut back travel when energy becomes more expensive (look at 1973 and 1979) or unavailable (WWII).

    I’d be curious to see if there are correlations with the aging of the population and unemployment (look at 1930). You would figure that people who are not commuting tend to drive fewer miles.

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  3. Michael Radosevich says:

    This trend is good news. I wonder if the data exists to do a graph on walking. Based on anecdotal evidence, walking seems to be growing over the past twenty years.

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  4. Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team says:

    In Pre Modern Times travel over 10 miles was excessive, risky and needed planning.

    Joseph took his wife, who was heavy with child from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to comply with a new Roman Census. There was no room at the Inn. A whole production ensued involving shepherds, wise men, angels and a manger.

    The actual distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem: 8 miles. In modern times that would be the equivalent of two freeway exits.

    In Biblical Times, the farthest a person ventured from their place of birth was 30 miles. Jesus was no exception.

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  5. Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team says:

    European landscape was shaped by centuries of living with limited intercity transit accomplished by horses and wooden wheeled wagons. People rarely left their village, let alone their province or country. And each little geographic was cut off leading to hundreds of languages in an area the size of Texas.

    Maybe America will once again be villagers who do not have the means to venture too far from their birthplace. And live for generations in a small area.

    We need mass transit, high speed rail and reconsolidated dense cities as the Europeans and now the Chinese are advocating. Or we should resort to having horses and haywagons.

    The END of OIL will occur in the lifetime of children currently present. They may be force to become villagers.

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  6. Clancy says:

    Today’s column brought to you by the letter C.

    I think part of what we are seeing is a ceiling on the amount of time people are willing to spend in the car. Since cars haven’t gotten much faster (for safety reasons) over the last 40 yrs or so and the average highway speed actaully dropping (due to congestion), the only way to travel farther is to spend more time in the car. It seems more like a leveling-off than a peak.

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  7. Franko says:

    Additional factors: Internet shopping means less trips out of the house. Increasing numbers of people are working from home. And, possibly, more home entertainment options and better entertainment systems mean less people are going out to movies, theater, sporting events, etc.

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  8. Greg Comlish says:

    “Human ingenuity has always found ways to produce more of, find substitutes for, or discover ways to do without a scarce resource when price signals tell us to.”

    Except at Easter Island where the natives cut down all the trees upon which they were economically and ecologically dependent thus ushering in a major resource shortages, brutal tribal warfare, religious fanaticism, and the collapse of rational thought.

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