Has the U.S. Passed Peak Car?

A new analysis suggests we may have. Here's why you should still be skeptical.

Americans have been cutting back on their driving ever since the recession. They've logged fewer miles on the road. They've been less likely to get a driver's license. And they've bought fewer vehicles

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But does all this actually mean the U.S. is getting over car culture? Or is it just the product of a down economy?

That's a question many people, including myself and Derek Thompson, have pondered over the past few years. And in a brief new report today, Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute has added a neat little bit of analysis to the conversation. Its key take-away is that the number of cars per household actually began to decline pre-recession, after 2006. Same goes for cars per licensed driver and cars per person. 

"In other words," Sivak writes, "these rates started to decline not because of economic changes but because of other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles." And that, he argues, means its more likely we're witnessing a permanent shift.

Sivak_Cars_Trucks_Vehicles_Per_Person.JPG

It's an interesting theory. But were Americans really rethinking their gas guzzling ways before the economy went south? I'm not quite sure. 

Remember, before we had a recession, we had a housing bust. Home values peaked in 2006, and families that had bet on infinitely rising prices by taking out second mortgages to finance their lifestyles started getting whacked. That marked the beginning of the end for the over-consuming oughts. And, given that housing values and spending tend to move in tandem, it's no surprise that vehicle registrations went into retreat around then, just as they retreated after the dotcom collapse. 

The decline of car ownership might well turn out to be a long-term trend with cultural and demographic roots. But if so, the housing bust and recession still seem to have been the tipping point.   

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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