Crash: The Decline of U.S. Driving in 6 Charts

Americans began taking their foot off the gas pedal well before the recession. But have we really hit peak car?
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Has the United States passed peak car? It's one of the more tantalizing questions that energy and urban-planning nerds are pondering these days. Ever since the recession, Americans have been driving less, getting fewer licenses, and using less gas. But is that just the work of the recession, or something more permanent? 

Over the past several months, Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute has released a series of short papers chipping away at the peak-car issue. They don't give us a definitive answer. But his findings, collected in a third study released this week, do a marvelous job illustrating the post-bubble decline of car buying, driving, and fuel consumption in the U.S. Here are what I think are his most interesting take-aways. 

The Average Household No Longer Owns 2 Cars

Officially, at least. At the height of the housing bubble, there were a shade over two registered cars on the road per household. As of 2011, there were just a shade under two. 

So, technically speaking, the two-car garage is no longer average. Realistically speaking, plenty of suburban households have a pair of Explorers or Civics sitting in their driveways. And thanks to population growth, the total number of vehicles on the road has started rising again.  (So no need to shed tears for Detroit, yet.) But, in the end, individual families aren't buying quite so many vehicles as a few years ago.

The Average Driver Travels 1,200 Fewer Miles Each Year

Americans are also spending far less time in the cars they do own. The average U.S. driver traveled 12,492 miles in 2011, down about 1,200 miles, or 9 percent, from our mid-aughts peak.  

Even with population growth, the country as a whole is barely driving more than during the recession.

The Average Driver Uses Less Gas Than in 1984

Lower mileage, along with more fuel-efficient vehicles, has in turn slashed our fuel consumption. Collectively, we haven't pumped this little gas since the 1990s. 

But on a per-driver basis, we've gone even further back in time, all the way to the Reagan era.

These Trends Started Before the Recession

All of these changes have something intriguing in common: They started well before the financial crisis and recession. The number of cars per household peaked in 2005. Miles-per-driver peaked in 2004, as so did gas use. Which is to say, as Sivak does, that it would be silly to pin these changes entirely on the downturn. 

But it would also be silly to suggest the economy didn't play a role. Gas prices began their dizzying rise early in the decade, which discouraged driving. Real estate cooled off in 2006, which discouraged spending on expensive items like cars. It's not as if everything was peachy until the day Lehman imploded. 

That's why it's very hard to look at these charts and discern anything about the future. The degree to which Americans have taken their foot off the gas pedal in just a few years is pretty remarkable. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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