What's the Driving Force Behind Less Driving?

Last time, I showed you evidence (courtesy of Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institution and Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper of Stanford University) that driving per person seems to have peaked in the 2000s and now may even be dropping. This bucks every travel trend we’ve seen since Henry Ford got to work. What might be slowing down the acceleration in driving?

Are higher fuel prices to blame? Perhaps in part. There is some debate on the magnitude of the effect gas prices have on fuel consumption, but luckily you don’t have to throw out your basic economics textbook; people do drive less when the price of driving rises. A fairly recent study by economists Kenneth Small and Kurt van Dender found that a 10 percent increase in gas prices leads to a 0.2. to 0.3 percent reduction in driving in the short run, and an eventual reduction of 1.1 to 1.5 percent.

But does this explain the driving slowdown? Maybe partially, but not entirely. The growth of driving began to abate around 2000, and driving flattened out around 2004; the big gas price hikes didn’t come until late in the decade. Besides, though the graph I showed you last time has a couple of kinks in the 1970s, the relentless rise in driving basically shrugged off a comparable (in real terms) runup in oil prices during that decade.

Does the travel plateau have to do with government policy? For example, are our rising expenditures on public transportation getting people out from behind the wheel? The answer is no. Despite decades of rising spending on mass transit, transit travel has remained stubbornly flat. According to the American Public Transportation Association, in 2008 total transit ridership was actually below 2000 levels, despite growth in the population and economy.

Nor was government responsible for any big increases in America’s (disappointingly low, in my humble opinion) gas taxes during the period in question.

What about the land use policies favored by many urban planners, which are supposed to be reducing trip lengths by bringing origins (homes) and destinations (work, school, shopping) closer together? If they are having any effect, it is not showing up in the overall statistics. According to the National Household Travel Survey, the average vehicle trip rose from 9.0 to 10.1 miles between 1990 and 2009, and the average work trip rose from 11.0 miles to 13.7. If land use changes are at work, these numbers should be falling, not rising.

It is true that other countries Millard-Ball and Schipper studied – Australia, Japan, the U.K., Sweden, Australia and Canada – do have more anti-car policies, and considerably lower levels of driving, than we do. (The Japanese drive about 40 percent of the miles per person that we do, while at the other end of the spectrum Australians and Canadians drive about 67 percent as much.)

A lot (though probably not all) of the cross-national differences in vehicle miles traveled may indeed be attributable to government policies, including restrictions on parking, high gas taxes, stiffer registration fees, higher minimum driving ages, land use policies that promote density, more spending on transit, etc.

But fascinatingly, the slowdown in driving is evident in all of those countries, and it started at about the same time ours did. Since there was no coordinated push toward anti-car policies in the 2000s, it is hard to maintain that government is fundamentally responsible for what seems to be a trend across the developed world.

Is peak travel due to stagnant incomes? As my mentor, UCLA’s Brian Taylor, has pointed out, driving and economic health go hand in hand. To be sure, differences in national wealth probably explain a lot of the residual difference (not accounted for by policy) between driving in other developed nations and driving here. And right now we are, of course, finally waking up from a doozy of a recession, which is almost certainly having an effect on travel patterns.

However, the VMT plateau predates the financial crisis by years. As Millard-Ball and Schipper note, auto use flattened even as GDP grew in the late 1990s and early 2000s, both here and in other developed countries. Thus the link between rising wealth and rising VMT may have finally been broken.

Are there any more promising explanations? Next time I’ll outline some.


Is stating that the crop of current college graduates (who graduated in the past decade) prefer to live, not only in cities, but in downtown environments [think converted warehouse districts that exist in many cities] moreso than previous generations; and are replacing a generation that placed a high value on the suburban ideal?

These people are living where they are more likely to walk, be within range of existing transit services, etc. They're also waiting longer to get married and waiting longer to buy a house (outside the urban core) and have kids than graduates in the 70's and 80's...


Phenomenal article! Freakonomics at its best.

I have no idea why driving levels should be plateauing now. I think I drive as much as I ever did, but I probably wouldn't notice anything less than a 10-15% difference over the course of a decade, so I don't even have any anecdotal thoughts on the reasons.


I would venture to guess that much of the drop in driving is attributable to the rise in online shopping, particularly the proliferation of free shipping offered on websites. Why schlep to the mall when you can have whatever you want delivered right to your doorstep, sometimes even overnight?

Nick Coghlan

Peaking in 2004? That's sounds suspiciously parallel to the rise of home theatre systems, internet access and improving teleconferencing capabilities...


I guess the internet, Amazon, and videogames have made staying at home more attractive than going shopping, or going somewhere to hang out with friends.
If I'm right, this should show up more in the statistics of travel by younger people.


I would suggest that the average cost of an automobile may be the driving force behind less driving. I only have anecdotal evidence which proves this to be true. I hope that this theory is examined in one of you explanations.


Could it be that air travel has become cheaper and easier over the course of the decade? With low price carriers (Southwest, Easyjet, AirAsia) and improved methods for finding the best price without a fee (kayak et al) maybe the amount of travel has continued to rise, but the manifestation cannot be measured through miles driven alone.

Joe Kwak

One of the big shifts in driving habits can be attributed to the rise, and rising quality, of remote broadband services and telecommuting.

I know many people that have shifted to part-time presences in their office, because having a home office enables them to log in just as many productive hours without the work commute.

In addition, especially here in California, the folks that regularly do commute are usually the ones that are resourceful enough to take advantage of things like carpooling, or otherwise making more efficient use of their travel resources.

Nicole Leffel

Though I understand this is a blog about economics, I think you're missing what could be a big factor at play here, Eric: emotions. We've been teaching the First World (and its children) that "driving kills the planet" for over a decade now. This environmental concern is reflected in many different areas, and has only become more pronounced as the current generation of people raised on recycling are becoming adults in their own right.

There is shame in gas-guzzling. Whether or not people even consciously admit to taking stock in global warming or man-made climate change, it's hard to ignore what's become an institutionalized mantra: "Pollution is bad. People who pollute are bad. Cars pollute."

The ways in which social consciousness affect buying patterns is definitely within the scope of economic forces, and, I would venture, deserves some special attention in this case.


I think there are many factors. One is people moved a lot during the 2000's and most likely one would move closer to work.

Another reason is the Baby Boomers are getting older and many times older people have trouble driving especially at night. Not all but some. I know my Dad who is now 64 and retired doesn't drive much anymore. Probably less than 5K miles a year.

Then there are the computers, videogames, internet, etc.

Just some thoughts.


Instead of trying to correlate driving with GDP look to income distribution, where the increasing concentration of wealth in the upper brackets perhaps better explains why people are driving less if it is due to less income. After the Dotcom bust I recall very conservative friends complaining about the cost of season basketball tickets, and I said that obviously the tickets were selling well but his boat wasn't floating like the others that he defended in all cases. This was when luxury yachts were backordered amidst a downturn. Also, vehicle mileage had been getting worse among popular vehicles, where smaller 'sporty' cars, minivans and higher power output family sedans could get as bad of mileage as the 'evil' pickups and SUVs, so it cost more to drive. The Great Recession and high gas prices resulted in a catastrophe for the auto industry as everyone had been jumping on the larger / higher output / AWD / pickup / SUV bandwagon of more fuel consumption. I know that we don't do nearly as many long trips as we use to a decade ago, in part because we aren't driving all over two states to get kids to soccer games, but also because it just costs too much to travel.



How about congestion? If driving levels rise to such an extent that driving becomes a very unpleasant task of navigating one's way through all the other traffic, perhaps people voluntarily abandon driving to avoid the stress. I certainly have. When I lived in a city I drove as little as possible, taking advantage of the public transport system or walking instead. I found driving in the congested city very stressful.

In the countryside I drive much more often since the roads are relatively free of traffic.

As an incidental point, could Japan's low driving rate be related to their low crime rates and consequently lower fear of crime? I taught in a Japanese school where a great number of the students walked or cycled to school every day. Perhaps when fear of crime is higher people tend to resort to the relative security of (locked) cars. When fear is lower, they might risk walking or using public transport.

The US has experienced falling violent crime rates in the 1990s. Could this inspire a return to walking or cycling instead of driving?



My guesses:

1) Environmental movement - people are worrying more about pollution effects of driving

2) Safety element - people are becoming more afraid of driving after decades of hearing about deadly car accidents

3) Alcohol - People are driving less because they are making more of an effort to avoid drunk driving, or similarly, maybe people are just drinking more often and thus driving less often

4) Labor / Demographics - People are moving into cities and away from suburbs, thus reducing commute time, while many others are increasingly working from home


Wal-Mart and other 1-stop shopping locations. Instead of having a day of errands where you need to stop and drive to several stores, you now simply run into Target and then head back home.


Three thoughts:
The post-war suburban expansion has crested, and so has the increase in travel distances.
Big Box stores may be farther away (on average) but they also allow us to combine multiple trips into one, reducing total driving distance.
Baby boomers are retiring. Generations X and Y have different versions of the American dream that involve less driving around.


How about the growth of senior citizens as a reason? As out population ages, the number of trips to work declines as the number of retireees goes up. Furthermore, the elderly, I'm guessing, drive less overall for leisure purposes, shopping, visiting far flung relative, etc.


Online shopping. Online entertainment. Cheaper airfares. Congestion makes driving for fun no fun at all.

Ian Bush

The baby boomer generation aging to a level whereby they prefer not to drive as much as when they were younger. Thus, separate outings and recreational trips replaced by fewer multipurpose trips which include shopping, recreation and appointments. It's not wealth limited but aging, health and family status limited. The kids are grown up, no more transporting kids to their events and the next generation are fewer, the echo is smaller than the baby boom bubble. In general, as people approach senior ages, they become less active thus reduce their trips. Finally, those with declining health will travel less. As the baby boomer group are a significant proportion of the population, their preference for reduced trips should statistically significantly affect study results.

Richard B.

How about peak commuting frustration? There is only so long people are willing to drive to work, before exploring alternatives such as living closer to work or taking public transportation. Notice the new exurbs were hit especially hard during the downturn in housing prices. No one wanted to buy the big, new McMansions in the shiny new subdivisions out beyond the suburbs. Could it be they were just too far away?


People in their 20s, joining the adult world of work commuting and most other reasons for driving are, as MRB said, more likely to live in a city, and walk or bike places, for a lot of reasons.
Some include environmental consciousness and a recognition of costs after having it driven into our heads as children. Another is that people who were of the age to be having kids in the 80s and early 90s had good reason to fear crime and think of the inner cities as dangerous places. The decline in crime rates, along with a generation more accepting of racial diversity, has changed that. I know very few 20-somethings that think the inner city is dangerous anymore.
"White flight" was a big reason for the suburban boom of the previous generations