Are We Driving Less?

The debate about our use of fossil fuels has been a long and contentious one, with some wanting to do away with our dependence upon them entirely (not really possible) and others pushing to go full steam ahead into the large untapped reservoirs of oil and natural gas (not necessarily desirable). The 'answer', if there is one lies somewhere between those two extremes. However, I am not going to get into that debate, at least not directly.

One of the arguments made by both sides of the debate is that gasoline and diesel are one of the biggest driving forces for fossil fuel demand, at least here in the US. While that may have been true until about 2004, that hasn't been the case since then. Both the number of vehicle miles traveled per year and per capital has been falling, with per capita vehicle miles traveled having fallen off starting in 2002.

The driving boom is over in the United States.

True or false?

For anyone who grew up thinking the United States is the epicenter of the world's car culture, this is a possibility hard to swallow.

Moreover, Americans who live in the suburbs, drive to work, and heavily rely on cars to haul kids around where they need to go, the notion that we are driving less simply feels false.

It turns out there is plenty of data from the US Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that shows that we are indeed driving less, own fewer vehicles, and that fewer people between the ages of 16 and 39 are getting a drivers license.

What has caused this drop in driving by the motoring public? There are a number of theories.

Some think it might be a result of the recession, but looking at the statistics the fall-off in miles traveled started before the recession. The recession was a contributing factor, but I doubt it was the major cause. People with jobs aren't traveling as far to and from their jobs as they did in the past. Some relocated to get closer to work while others changed jobs and the new jobs were closer to home. There may also be another related factor which I will get into a little later.

Another one of the biggest causes of the fall-off might be that teens and young adults are driving far less and are less likely to own cars or trucks like they have in the past. There are two factors that are driving this: the prestige of owning a car has been replaced by that of having the latest wizbang does-everything-but-burp-the-baby-but-there's-an-app-for-that smart phone/tablet; or the teens and young adults don't have the income necessary to own and maintain a car. It's more likely to be a combination of the two. After all you don't see lines of young adults waiting to buy the latest trendy car – new or used. But you'll see them line up for days ahead of time to get the newest smart phone when it comes out. Those smart phones aren't cheap, nor are the plans covering them.

In my mind one of the biggest factors affecting the drop-off in miles driven is the now ubiquitous Internet. Many actions that in the recent past required us to travel in order to perform them have been replaced by going on-line. Even things as simple as registering our cars, renewing our drivers licenses, or extending the time we're borrowing a book from our local library no longer require us to go to Town Hall, the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Public Library. We don't even have to go to our local news shop to pick up a copy of a local or national newspaper. More of our shopping is done on the 'Net. Even some of our work is carried by the 'Net, meaning telecommuting. Every day someone can work form the comfort of their home is one less day that they have to make the drive into work.

One of the side effects of the fall-off in miles being driven has been a drop in demand for gasoline and diesel. That adds on to the fall in demand for motor fuels in general due to the greatly increased fuel economy in cars and trucks over the past 10 years or so. The overall demand for oil in the US has fallen to levels last seen back in 1997 and is still dropping. With our new reserves the need for oil from foreign sources has almost disappeared. Call it a win-win for those wishing to keep the drill rigs running as well as those wishing to see us weaned off of fossil fuels entirely.