These 6 charts show our love affair with cars could be over

Scott Tong Dec 19, 2014

These 6 charts show our love affair with cars could be over

Scott Tong Dec 19, 2014

Just when you thought the guzzlers and Hummers were gone for good, gas prices fell again. The numbers show we’re tilting toward bigger cars and away from fuel-sippers. But not driving more.

In 2007, Americans collectively drove enough to circle the planet 120,000 times. Our total vehicle miles driven tallied 3 trillion miles.

We haven’t hit that number since. Many think North American society, and perhaps advanced economies in general, have passed an inflection point. Call it Peak Car, or Peak Driving.

“What we’ve seen over the past decade has been a decline in per capita driving,” says Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group, a self-described public-interest think tank based in Boston. Society has moved past a postwar era of more car and more driving, he says.

Vehicle miles traveled.

“We were suburbanizing, women were entering the workforce,” Dutzik says. “Cars went from being a luxury to being a near necessity in most of the country. And all of those changes were leading people to drive more.”

All that has largely played out. Cheaper gasoline will spur some increased demand, but Dutzik argues it will be outweighed by longer-term structural factors. Insurance is soaring, fewer young adults are applying for driver licenses, they drive less, owning a car costs too much and alternatives exist. 

Millenials drive less, walk & bike more

There’s even evidence some would rather be online than on the road.

I’d rather be online

And one more thing: Most of us are moving back to cities, where it can be easier to get around without a car.

“So popularity of cities and the more livable nature of them in terms of crime and other factors, too, have led to folks being able to lead a car-light lifestyle, which was really hard before,” says Eric Sundquist at the University of Wisconsin’s State Smart Transportation Initiative.

Many economists suggest it’s not just driving, but that overall U.S. oil demand has peaked, forever. Which brings up a familiar, haunting question: Is it really different this time?

“Whenever I hear ‘We’re absolutely never going to see these gas prices again, we’re never going to see these annual sales again, we’re never going to see more miles per person being driven again,’ I always say ‘Yeah, uh-huh,’”  says Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer.

Brauer says you never know what a prolonged stretch of cheap oil and economic boom can bring. As it turns out, more than one set of prognosticators has projected out three scenarios: driving goes back up, or sideways, or down. It’s a nice guarantee they’ll be right.

Where do we go from here?

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