‘Peak car‘ is the phrase that describes the remarkable turnaround in car use in America. Although the use of automobiles traditionally grew year after year, recently the trend has flipped, and vehicle-miles-traveled is going down. This trend also includes New Jersey, which saw maximum car use in 2007.
In recent years, charts like the one below have shown a sustained reduction in car driving in the USA:
It seems that car use ‘peaked’ around 2006. The question is, does the reduction since then reflect a change in Americans’ driving habits, or is it just an effect of the bad economy, or high gas prices? More and more studies have shown that although these factors matter, they cannot adequately explain the reduction in driving. For example, plenty of places with strong economies are seeing declining car use. Some commentators suggest that the ‘American love affair’ with the car is over, that young people want to live in walkable places, or walkUPs like Princeton, where they can get by without driving. Others suggest it is the retired Baby Boom generation, who are spending more time on the golf course and less time commuting. Another possibility is that teleworking practices and altered weekly schedules mean fewer people need to drive.
Remarkably, several states hit ‘peak car’ as long ago as 1992 (Washington state), and have been declining ever since. This suggests that the reduction in driving is based on something more long-lasting that the economic cycle or changes in the price of gas. 48 out of 50 states are now at lower levels of car use than a previous ‘peak’. The year of peak car use varies dramatically by state. New Jersey saw ‘peak car’ in 2007, at 8,818 annual miles per resident.
If New Jersey is now in an era of declining car use, that has huge implications for transportation planning. Roads that have become more and more congested (think Route 1) might be a joy to drive on in future. We could forget about building expensive transit projects, because nobody will want to ride a bus if car driving becomes easy and fun again. Aaron Renn even suggested that we should go back to building more roads, because ‘induced demand‘ would no longer apply.
But the risk is that New Jersey has not yet reached peak car. Compared to other states, our maximum level of driving was quite recent, and the decline since the maximum has been small. The future could quite easily see the Garden State return to the pre-recession trend of ever-increasing car use. The difference in vehicle-miles-traveled between states will give researchers an opportunity to better understand what factors are most closely linked with reduced driving. The suspicion is that whereas other states are allowing the housing market to accommodate the growing demand for walkable living, New Jersey is persisting with dispersed, low-density land use that makes car use more or less mandatory. Time will tell if we are to join the club of states that are abandoning cars, or put our foot back on the gas.
Do you see any evidence of declining driving in the Princeton, NJ area? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!
A few quick thoughts :
Although your chart says 1980-2013, the actual data from the linked article only goes to 2011. It’s 2015 now, and basing your conclusions on what happened to vehicle miles on stale data is especially problematic given trends since that time.
First, vehicle miles overall in the US are increasing again (probably still falling on a per capita basis, but perhaps not for long.) And they started increasing before the recent drop in gas prices.
Next, the trends to 2011 in your charts are based on a considerably weaker economy — employment was 4.5% below the prior peak in 2007 (it’s 1.4% above now,) confidence was much lower, house prices were still falling, consumers were still paying down debt, and gas prices were much higher. So there were many reasons for people to decide to skimp on driving.
The recent plunge in gas prices alone, plus the likely extended duration of the plunge (at least a couple of years) along with the trend toward less fuel efficient vehicles in the last 6 months of last year, is worrying, and points to much of the populace having been more concerned with saving a buck over the past few years, rather than a widespread concern for the environment and/or conservation of resources.
This is not to say I dismiss the trends in increasing public transport use, car sharing, a falling share of licensed drivers of the younger population – they are important and welcome. But some of those are economically based as well. It’s basically far too early to tell where we are headed on this.