Americans, especially young, continue to drive less, report says


Automotive News
May 14, 2013 - 5:36 pm ET -- UPDATED: 5/14/13 8:52 pm ET - details added

-- Americans, in a worrisome sign for automakers, continue to drive less, with more and more younger people choosing to forgo a driver's license altogether, a major new study released Tuesday found.

According to the report by U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the total miles per capita driven has fallen every year since 2004, marking the end of a "driving boom" dating back to 1964.

During the boom, the amount of miles traveled by Americans in vehicles increased each year by an average of 2.5 percent per capita and 3.8 percent total. From 2004 to 2012, the total amount of miles traveled remained stable, while the amount per capita decreased by 1 percent each year, according to the report.

The report was commissioned by the group's Education Fund, the research and education arm of the consumer advocacy group; and the Frontier Group, a nonprofit nonpartisan public policy organization focused on environmental and civic issues.

The study casts doubt on the widely held assumption that the recession, higher gasoline prices and widespread unemployment was the primary reason Americans drove less in recent years. But authors of the study say demographic changes, high costs and shifts in consumer preferences are also behind the ongoing decline in driving.

They also point out that the decline began before the recession. Per-capita vehicle travel peaked in 2004, the study found.

U.S. vehicle ownership has dropped by 4 percent between the all-time high of 1.24 vehicles per driver in 2006 and today, the study found.

Urban America

One reason for the decline is that America is becoming more urban, allowing increased use of mass transit.

The authors of the study say that transportation officials aren't heeding signs that driving is declining and continue to expand the country's highway system rather than preserving it.

They say automakers don't seem to be effectively preparing for the decline either as car-loving baby boomers age out of their "peak driving" years.

One major point in the study echoes concerns that have been expressed by executives at General Motors and other auto companies: that young drivers are far less interested in driving, and in owning cars, than previous generations.

From 2001 to 2009, the amount of miles driven annually by people aged 16 to 34 olds dropped 23 percent, from 10,300 to 7,900 miles per capita, according to the U.S. government's National Household Travel Survey, which is cited in the report.

The percentage of driving-age Americans with licenses also fell to a 30-year low of 86 percent in 2011 from an all-time high of 90 percent in 1992.

Young Americans are also obtaining driving licenses at a very low rate. In 2011, only 67 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds were licensed drivers, according to the report released Tuesday. It is the lowest rate of licensure for that age group since at least 1963, the report said.

The report said the decline in driver's license rates among young people likely reflects the widespread passage of graduated driver's licensing laws, which impose restrictions on young applicants. All but one state has enacted such laws, according to the report.

Many millenials place a higher value on owning a cell phone or computer than a car, the report says.

In fact, 20 percent of millenials polled in December 2012 said they would consider giving up a car as an unjustified expense, and nearly two out of three college students said they value access to an Internet connection more than they value access to a car, according to a survey in the report.

Millenials also have less of an emotional investment in their cars. Fewer than 15 percent defined themselves as car enthusiasts, compared with 30 percent of baby boomers, according to the report.

The report notes that millennials, to a degree greater than their parents, want to live in an urban, pedestrian environment and are increasingly looking toward alternative forms of transportation such as mass transit or biking.

The report cites a recent survey by KRC Research and car-sharing service Zipcar in which 44 percent of those 189 to 34 said they have consciously sought to use alternative forms of transportation rather than driving.

The report also points out that mobile phone applications have allowed mass transit riders to do things that would otherwise be distracting and unsafe while driving, such as online shopping, gaming and social networking.

Targeting the young

Aware that young people are focused on technology, automakers are increasingly equipping new vehicles with premium electronics, social network connectivity and sophisticated user interfaces. But Phineas Baxandall, a co-author of the study, said it's not clear these features will encourage millenials to place a higher value on owning a car.

"Over time, this is something where the auto industry is not going to be able to change these trends or change the larger arc of things by adding in more information technology on the dashboard," Baxandall said. "More auto companies may want to think about investing in transit."

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying organization that represents 12 automakers, acknowledged that increased unemployment and a budding desire to live in urban areas has driven some young people away from car ownership.

Regardless of any future changes, Bergquist said automobiles will continue to be a part of the "mobility equation," adding:

"We realize that mobility is always evolving, and these companies are always looking at the trend and how it may affect their options."

You can reach Adam Rubenfire at

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