It's easy to refer to the recession in 2008 as the point at which Americans started driving less, but a growing number of studies are showing that American driving peaked in 2004, The New York Times reports, and it's hard to quantify why.

A study recently published by the University of Michigan shows that miles driven in light-duty vehicles peaked in 2004 and fell five to nine percent through 2011. Several measures were used in the study, including distances driven per person, per registered vehicle, per licensed driver and per household, according to the Times, and all of the measures have decreased since 2004. Interestingly, light-duty fleet vehicle driving peaked in 2006, and decreased from 2.8 trillion miles driven per year to 2.6 trillion miles in 2011.

"I'm reasonably confident that 2006 was a temporary peak in driving," says Michael Sivak, a research professor at the school's Transportation Research Institute. "I'm less confident that the peaks in the rates reached in 2004 are temporary." Lifestyle changes, such as relocation to cities and increased telecommuting and public transit, are driving factors in Americans driving less miles, as is the aging of the driving population, Sivak says.

Micheline Maynard, former Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times, adds that young people tend "to be more infatuated with social media than with cars and driving," and the number of teenagers earning drivers licenses has reached "recent lows." And with gas prices high and money tight, people tend to cut cars from their lives first, says Maynard, adding that the Obama administration has improved public transit systems through aggressive financing of projects.

All of this has led to fewer vehicles on the road. Sivak found in a previous report that the number of registered light-duty vehicles peaked at 236 million in 2008 and has fallen since then to 234 million in 2011.


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  • 59 Comments
      PatrickH
      • 1 Year Ago
      " It's easy to refer to the recession in 2008 as the point at which Americans started driving less, but a growing number of studies are showing that American driving peaked in 2004, The New York Times reports, and it's hard to quantify why." What's so hard to figure out? Gasoline prices spiked in 2005, and never returned to the previous low prices from before. Ergo, people started driving less.
      Sean Conrad
      • 1 Year Ago
      "Hard to quantify"? Seriously? Gas prices doubled, tripled, and/or quadrupled in 2005 and never came back down (for any substantial period of time). People drive less because it costs more to do so.
        Chip
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Sean Conrad
        And, it seems to be a bigger PITA than ever to do the basic driving we all need to do. Around where I live, it's by no means a metropolis, but the main roads that everyone uses all seem to be clogged at the same times every day. I don't know if there are fewer cars and miles driven where I live and breathe, but I can attest to it being more costly and a bigger pain than ever just getting around, even (or especially) in my suburbia.
      Feurig
      • 1 Year Ago
      Maynard should never have been quoted. Too infatuated with social media than cars? What a dumb assertion. One is a passing hobby in between breaks in life and the other is a necessity of transportation. And furthermore, if it peaked in 2004 and started dropping since, how does Obama have anything to do with this? I think it has more to do with advancement in technology and simply gas prices. Because of planes, trains, and busses, there are often better alternatives to driving. Gas prices can also affect behaviors on a macro scale. Someone would have to do a correlation analysis.
        PatrickH
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Feurig
        They only reason I could see to mention Obama is that many blame him (including me) for our country's slow economic recovery. Bad economy = less driving due to the expense. Thanks to him I have no doubt this recession will drag on forever (and I don't care what the "technical" definition of a recession is. when this many people are out of work and the economy is growing at the slowest rate since WWII that's a recession in my eyes.) Also don't forget all the regulatory hurdles he has placed on the energy industry. That doesn't help matters.
      m_2012
      • 1 Year Ago
      "Lifestyle changes, such as relocation to cities and increased telecommuting and public transit, are driving factors in Americans driving less miles, as is the aging of the driving population, Sivak says." uh, no, dumba$$...$4 a gallon gas, stagnant wages, and record unemployment in the middle of a recession might have something to do with it
      J
      • 1 Year Ago
      Partial contributors: telecommuting, increases in online sales (fewer reasons to go out to the store). I'd guess that teens are likely not acquiring cars at such a rapid pace because they're likely also not venturing out on their own as early in life, so have no problem just borrowing the family car when they need it.
      donloki
      • 1 Year Ago
      It peaked in 2004 because 2005 was when prices for gas started staying above $3.00 per gallon. In a city with decent weather and decent mass transport its just way way cheaper to not drive.
      mylexicon
      • 1 Year Ago
      Unemployment Fuel prices suppressed per capita VMT during 2006, when unemployment rates were low, but per capita VMT is now suppressed by unemployment. If the unemployment rate and labor participation rate recovered to 2004 levels, per capita VMT would be considerably higher, despite $100 oil.
      spazaru
      • 1 Year Ago
      I sure couldn't tell that yesterday when it took me 45 minutes to go a half mile in San Diego
      Paulevalence
      • 1 Year Ago
      I can only speak for houston, but traffic has only gotten worse since 2004 here. Maybe people are driving shorter distances, but there seems to be more drivers.
      Basil Exposition
      • 1 Year Ago
      This is truely great news. The less congestion on the roads the better!
      • 1 Year Ago
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      • 1 Year Ago
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