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)


There may be many reasons why people are starting to drive less year by year. Oil is not infinite. It has a limit, and as we continue to use it it gets scarcer and scarcer and because of this, prices rise. Then people might start to find other ways to get to places like riding a bike or walking. Also those people who are very "green" might start to cut off their driving because they are very concerned about the environment. Since driving cars releases a lot of CO2 they might start driving less and start walking more.


Cars have become almost essential in our daily lives, many people live far away from their jobs or schools and cars are the most efficient way in which to get there. With cities getting bigger in the past years and the fact that there are many different brands of cars now a days, having a car has become easier. When the car was invented there were only Fords, causing there to be a monopoly over this kind of product, therefore the price for the cars was very expensive. Today there are many brands causing there to be competition and the prices to be lower. This causes people who were already willing to buy the cars to now be able to actually buying allowing for the demand for cars to be greater which can be seen in the graph since the amount of miles traveled went up so much. The number of miles traveled started to fall in the past few years, and this could be due to recognition of ecological problems in the world or even due to too much traffic. People are now starting to worry more about the future of the world, which may cause many people to go on buses instead of cars in order to be more "green". Also, with the excessive number of cars in the streets and the expensive prices of gas have caused being in a car to become less efficient to some people. It might now be cheaper and faster to go to work in a metro.


G Wolf

You mention price signals in the first paragraph, but then neglect to even consider them in the rest of the post.

What I mean is this. Perhaps VMT/Person has increased because the cost of traveling by car has gone down? Cars used to be a luxury, reserved for the gentried elite. However, the cost of purchasing, as well as maintaining, an automobile has dropped, relatively speaking. Add the inflation-adjusted median cost of purchasing a vehicle, and I'll bet you see a pretty clear inverse relationship with the existing lines.

Dan Newkirk

Foolishly fallacious.

David Reid

Peak oil will impact on transport sector more directly than other sectors. Other sectors may be able to substitute for oil to some degree, but petroleum's energy density is what makes it the perfect fuel for transport. Although people that might like to champion the electric car, they must acknowledge a simple fact: batteries cannot compete with petroleum on energy density. Electric cars will be on average slower and have a shorter range than petroleum powered vehicles. This is basically because batteries are big and heavy compared to an equivalent tank of petroleum fuel.

The decline in travel is probably linked to both peak oil and economic recession. The two are interrelated. Less economic activity means less people travelling. Unemployed people will also travel far less than those who are employed.



The only way to prove the author's statement wrong is to have the entire human race go extinct.

As cold blooded as this will sound, losing population and failed civilizations are a fairly common throughout history, and yet despite that out population growth overall for our species, is always positive. In fact, the last big massive loss of population for the human race was WWII, and we did that to ourselves.

As far as the rest of the article goes, it's nice to read about how we, as a people seem to be capable of moderating our own resource use, and despite the Cassandra-like wailing's of all the doom-sayers.

It always amuses me to know they've been complaining like that for only as long as the human race has existed, and all the problems they said would be our end, instead the problem quietly went away after a bit of thought and innovation, leaving doom-sayers the free time to find the next apocalyptic event cresting the horizon.

Frankly, I think they should just relax, enjoy their Vente Soy-Mocha Latte, quietly read a book, and stop adding to the noise pollution.


Suzanne Lainson

Here's the best article I have seen on Peak Oil.

While oil hasn't disappeared, the sources of "cheap oil" are disappearing. So as the price of oil goes up, it affects the economy. If there were no problem getting oil out of the ground, why would companies bother with risky deep sea drilling and why would we bother to import from foreign countries that don't like us? If we can always find more oil, then we'd continue to be self-sufficient in oil.


I think it's impossible to increase the VMT/person in US anymore. There's is a limit how much people are willing to spend in car. Thus people are telecommuting and moving closer to work. At least they cannot more any further. For me 20 minutes daily one way is max I can tolerate.


I would say that VMT per person has reached the upper level that is very close to maximum what people are ready to spend in their vehicles. However I assume that number of cars is still increasing, which gives the continous growth in total VMT.


@Drill: interesting comments but unfortunately not quite true. :-) Some time ago me and my family did some work in tracking down my family here in Denmark and got as far back as the Reformation, ~1560. Many of my ancestors were farmers and so you'd think pretty stationary. Not so. From the stories we were able to gather the farmers walked or rode many, many miles to get their cattle or geese or grain or whatnot to remote markets to get the best price. They also travelled for personal reasons. One mother walked 50 or 60 miles to deliver a food package to her son who was stationed in a large fortress on the border to Germany, then got a lift back with a grain merchant. A wife walked 60 miles with a child to visit the husband who was in a field hospital near the German border, having lost an arm in a battle (we tended to fight a bit with the Germans now and then in the olden days) - then walked back. Sock merchants got around quite a bit, walking hundreds of miles peddling their wares each summer. So plenty of people left their villages all the time and there was a very good communation network where news and rumors from hundreds of miles away travelled in days.

The funny thing is, in some cases they didn't move very far away when they got married. I've found that most of my maternal clan lived as farmers inside a radius of perhaps 20-25 miles for centuries whereas in my paternal clan they were craftsmen mostly working in one area, unless they moved - they even included a German from the Berlin area at one point. The travel pattern seems to be the opposite of the "marriage pattern". Could this thing still be going on?



@Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team: while long-distance travelling was very rare among farmers, you actually had far more nomads in biblical times, who routinely travelled hundreds of miles. As did soldiers and merchants. The roman empire built a huge network of roads (some of which still exist today) for a reason.


Rather than look for an explanation among things that are currently changing, seems to me it better to think about things that have stopped changing. For one, the completion of the local interstate-grade road network around most cities, and the subsequent diffusion of workplaces away from central areas to outlying areas, pretty much took place from the 60's and was completed by the mid-90's, the time it took for the real estate to fully develop in the newly-accessible areas. This trend was likely key to the increase in average commuting distance and thus VMT. Surely this changeover has now leveled off, and is reflected in the leveling-off in VMT/person.

Another impact may be a change in working people as a proportion of the general population. I don't have those numbers handy, but I suspect an increasing proportion is accounted for by the underaged and retired, and people in these categories don't drive as much as working folks.

My gut feel is that increasing fuel cost has little to do with it, particularly since the real cost of petroleum is actually not all that high in historical terms, certainly not as high as people are currently grumbling about based on raw prices.


John Smith

I am in college as a petroleum engineer (formal name is Mech Eng with Oil and Gas Specialisation), and peak oil is wrong because you drill for the easier grades of oil first and drill for progressively more expensive grades of oil as the oil price trends up.

Accordingly, you never experience a abrupt event like peak oil. You just increase supply as price increases.

Christopher Strom

I think Tom (#28) had it.

There's only so much time people are willing to spend traveling in a car. A commute is going to be 10-15 miles on average (3750 miles/yr), add in errands and vacations and you get to about 10K miles.

There will be an upper limit to VMT/person annual, and it will be bounded by time.

Other explanations might sound more intellectual, but ask yourself: absent those fancy explanations, would YOU double your commute or start traveling across the country by car every year for vacation?


@John Smith:

You apparently don't understand what "peak oil" means. It doesn't mean "no more oil at all after day X". It means "continuousl declining oil extraction after day X". And it's the *only* logically possible alternative to an "abrupt event" given an overall finite amount of oil. If you don't believe in peak oil, there are only four other possibilities: 1) you believe oil to be a resource capable of replenishing itself arbitrarily quickly, 2) you believe in an "abrupt event", 3) you don't understand the meaning of the term, 4) you are not thinking rationally.

As for those "progressively more expensive grades of oil" - they are indeed why oil supply will decline gradually rather than end abruptly. But that doesn't say anything about what will happen to the price of oil and to an economy that is extremely dependant on it.


The peak is probably sharper than it appears. Stimulus dollars have likely biased the past several years data. The biennial report published in early 2010 revised numbers from previous estimates up almost 3%. Usually the numbers are within about a percent.


VMT/capita dropped, how does fuel consumption/ capita compare?


I believe the reason is congestion. Miles per gallon started dropping in 2005 (data has since been revised and this very significant drop no longer shows, I suspect this is due to the influx of stimulus dollars introducing bias. The biennial report done in 2010 brought miles travelled up almost 3% from the TVT numbers published monthly. Normally the TVT numbers are within 1%.)

Three things I believe are the primary causes are:

Inadequate road building and maintenance.
Cell phone usage.
Rising gas prices.

Rising gasoline prices decreasing our fleet efficiency is counter-intuitive, but it is very logical when thought through thoroughly.

Prior to the 2008 price spike, I believe there was a sort of Giffen Behavior happening, where people were driving more during congested times for business to make up for their shortfalls in income and driving less during off-peak times for recreation and leisure.

Accelerating too slowly. The common advice to drive economically is to drive as if there is a glass of water on the dash board. This is good advice for an individual driver, but it is flawed for a couple reasons.

One, it is great advice because it minimizes braking, which is the primary energy wasting behavior in driving. However, this advice is overly conservative on the acceleration side. When accelerating, smooth and quick acceleration is most efficient. Getting RPM a little above 3000 (for typical gasoline vehicles) is most efficient. Accelerating smoothly and quickly will be more efficient provided the driver does not accelerate too much and then need to brake.

Second, while this advice is good for an individual driver, it does not consider the driver's effect on the system as a whole. Slow accerlation decrease through-put at bottlenecks. This is also why cellphone/smart-phone usage probably makes a large contribution to the increase in cogenstion we see, despite less driving overall. We end up with more stop-and-go. It is sort of like the tragedy of the Tragedy of the the Commons. Individuals trying to optimize their fuel economy (or time in the case of phone users) degrades the economy of the system as a whole.



Probably also contributing are the aging baby-boomers and the baby-boom echo. There probably increasing numbers of vehicle with babies on board.


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