Drop in driving and car ownership suggests that America's love affair with cars may be over

February 15, 2017

With lots of wide-open spaces and a sprawling (though crumbling) system of roads, America has been an ideal country for cars. But a new study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute suggests that our long, national love affair with automobiles may be coming to an end. 

It wouldn't be the first time we've heard that. In 2013, two unrelated studies showed that Americans were driving less, even as the country rebounded from the Great Recession. Both studies demonstrated that the number of miles Americans drive per year began to taper off in 2004. 

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Now, UMTRI's Michael Sivak has followed up on that second study, showing once again that the distances that individual drivers and households travel each year peaked in 2004. Not only that, but rates of vehicle ownership have fallen, too.

For the purposes of his study, Sivak looked at U.S. statistics over a 32-year span, from 1984 to 2015. Here are some of his key takeaways:

  • The number of miles driven per person per year in the U.S. topped out in 2004, at 9,314. The number had risen steadily during the prior two decades, without dipping.
  • Today, the average American drives 8,648 miles per year--about what people drove in 1997. 
  • The number of miles driven annually per U.S. household also peaked in 2004, at 24,349
  • Today, the average household drives 22,311 miles, approximately as far as households drove in 1994.  
  • The number of vehicles per person in the U.S. peaked in 2006, at 0.786. Prior to that, the number had risen steadily, apart from a five-year dip spanning from 1991-1995. 
  • Today, 0.756 vehicles are registered per person in America. 
  • The number of vehicles per household in the U.S. also peaked in 2006, at 2.050
  • Today, the average household has 1.950 vehicles.
  • Both the number of vehicles per capita and the number of vehicles per household hit bottom in 2013 and have recovered only slightly since then. 

Of course, what Sivak doesn't do--and frankly, what's beyond the scope of his paper--is theorize about the reasons for the drops in travel and vehicle ownership. If you have ideas of your own, share them in the comments below.

You can view an abstract of Sivak's paper here.

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