U.S. Driving Surges, But Gas Consumption Hits 30-Year Low: This Fuel Economy Thing May Be Working

March 26, 2015

Two curious studies have come out in recent weeks -- curious not because they're suspicious or because they contradict one another, but because they paint an intriguing picture of a changing America.

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The first study was released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and it showed that the number of miles driven by Americans has surged in recent years. In fact, U.S. vehicles traveled a total of 3.02 trillion miles in 2014, the second-highest number recorded in 79 years of data collection. (The only higher number was seen in 2007.)

To put that figure in perspective, consider that Voyager 1, which has traveled farther than any other man-made object, had flown about 12.2 billion miles by the end of 2014. Americans traveled more than 247 times that distance -- and we did it in just one year, while Voyager has taken 37.

What's more, the growth trend shows no sign of slowing. Americans traveled more last December than in any other month of 2014. In fact, December 2014 was the most-traveled December on record since stats began piling up in 1939. 

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The second study came from University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, and it revealed that Americans are using less gasoline and owning fewer cars than they have in 30 years -- or perhaps ever. UMTRI began tracking those stats in 1984, and figures from 2013 (the latest year for which data is available) clocked in lower than any on record.

Consider this:

  • In 1984, the U.S. consumed 400 gallons of gasoline per person. In 2013, the number was 392. That may not seem like much of a drop, but it's falling precipitously -- down 17 percent since the peak in 2004.
  • In 1984, each U.S. vehicle consumed an average of 602 gallons of gasoline. In 2013, that number was 524, which was 14 percent lower than 2003.
  • in 1984, each U.S. household consumed an average of 1,106 gallons of gas. In 2013, the number was 1,011, or 19 percent lower than 2004 highs.

According to UMTRI's Michael Sivak, "Despite population growth of 8 percent, the absolute amount of fuel consumed by light-duty vehicles decreased by 11 percent during the period 2004 — the year of maximum consumption — through 2013." 

In other words: the U.S. population has continued to grow, but we're now using less fuel per person, per vehicle, and per household. Sivak also says that we own fewer vehicles per person and per household than we have at any time in the past two decades.

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So, on the one hand, Americans are driving more, but on the other, we're making do with fewer cars and less gas. How is that possible?

Assuming the studies are both correct, there are a few possibilities:

  • More people means more driving overall: As Sivak points out, the U.S. population grew eight percent in the ten years between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2013. That means more drivers and thus, more driving overall. So, the fact that we put more than three trillion miles on our odometers in 2014 isn't that surprising.
  • We may have more drivers, but they're not driving as far as their predecessors: Even though the total number of miles driven in the U.S. has increased, the per-driver average has fallen because drivers are traveling fewer miles. That's consistent with previous studies showing that miles driven per person, per vehicle, and per household peaked in 2004.
  • Fuel economy continues to improve: In 1985, the corporate average fuel economy of U.S. light vehicles hovered around 17.5 mpg. As of last summer, CAFE had hit 31.3 mpg, and it continues to climb. So, all these additional drivers traveling fewer miles are doing so while using less fuel.
  • Urbanization, mass transit, telecommuting and other factors are changing the way we work: In the depths of the Great Recession, driving averages fell. Analysts assumed that they'd climb over time, but even as the economy has recovered, travel has largely remained flat or declined. Many including Sivak believe that this phenomenon stems in part from changes in the way that Americans work, including increased urbanization, which allows more people to use mass transit or other means of getting to their jobs.  
  • Baby Boomers are retiring and driving less: Some of the decrease in driving could be due to the glut of Baby Boomers who've begun to hit retirement age. Though they're still a very active demographic, they're not making daily commutes, which cuts back on their driving and helps reduce miles traveled per person.
  • Millennials not buying cars: As we've reported time and again, Millennials just aren't that interested in driving or owning cars. That puts a dent in the number of vehicles per person and per household and causes a dip in the miles traveled per person.
Have some theories of your own? Share them in the comments below.


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