Has “Peak Car” Arrived?

Fear not, this is not our future.

by James A. Bacon

Worried about “peak oil?” Never fear, the world also may be reaching “peak car,” to borrow a phrase coined this summer by Scientific American. The average American is driving less and less each year — a trend matched by the citizens of economically advanced democracies across the globe, from France and Spain to New Zealand and Japan.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s “2011 Urban Congestion Report,” three measures of congestion — daily hours of congestion, time penalty for each trip, and worst-trip time penalty — all decreased in 2011 compared to 2010. Congested hours in major metros fell nine minutes to four hours and 22 minutes.

The FHWA cited operational improvements such as tolled express lanes, accelerated bridge construction and enforceable variable speed limits. But publications like the Economist and Time draw attention to both temporary factors, such as the economic slowdown, and longer-range influences, such as the Millennial Generation’s disenchantment with automobiles.

This fast-spreading meme may be a bit over-hyped. Drive-alone commuting did decline in the past year (2010 to 2011)… by an entire 0.17%. That’s not a breathtaking shift. Mass transit, biking, walking and telecommuting all gained, but only by tiny amounts, as can be seen in this statistical summary published by geographer Wendell Cox in New Geography:

………………………………………………. 2000              2010                  2011

Yes, Americans seems to be relinquishing their cars… but very, very slowly.

Delving deeper, one could argue that changing generational preferences will alter commuting patterns in the longer run. Nationally, the 25- to 44-year-old age cohort accounts for 43.4% of all drive-alones but 49.4% for all mass transit riders, according to the latest American Community Survey data. That 6.0 percentage point gap suggests a slight but measurable generational shift — although not one big enough to transform the transportation landscape any time soon.

(The generational preference appears to be less pronounced in Virginia. In the Old Dominion, the 25- to 44-year-old age cohort accounts for 43.7% of all drive-alone commuters and 44.9% of mass transit commuters — a gap of only 1.2 percentage points.)

On the other hand, one could argue that it is difficult for Americans to shift from cars to bikes or public transit given the non-existence of bike lanes and mass transit in many communities. As regions invest more in those options, as developers build more mixed-use projects in mass transit corridors and as people gravitate back toward the urban core, you will see the commute-by-bike and commute-by-mass transit numbers spike. I think that could happen.

The lesson here isn’t that Americans will abandon their cars in large numbers. It’s that the decades-long trend in which automobiles have steadily gained commuting market share at the expense of other transportation modes has finally plateaued, and has perhaps even gone into reverse.  The numbers don’t signal a need to suddenly dump hundreds of billions of dollars into mass transit and bicycle lanes. But they do give ample reason to question long-term forecasts of ever-escalating Vehicle Miles Driven that require multi-billions of investments in road roads and highways.

Just as “peak oil” doesn’t mean that petroleum isn’t going away, “peak car” doesn’t mean that automobiles are going away. But we do have to adjust our thinking about how much money we need for transportation and where we need to put it.

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  1. Toll Road news pontificated on the same data:

    US traffic continues to slip – full year estimates for 2011 down 1.2%


    Of course their take on it is that less miles means less gas tax and that ultimately benefits tolls as the way that new roads get built.

    I wonder though if tolls on roads encourage people to prioritize their trips also especially tolls on road with a daily commuters that provide HOV or HOT Lanes for carpooling.

    If you think of car trips in the US, the vast, vast majority of them are SOV and the explicit goal of HOT and HOV is to encourage more vehicle sharing.

    but here is the future: new “free” roads are not going to get built. The gas tax will barely generate enough money for maintenance and operations of existing roads. New roads are going to be toll roads. Toll roads are going make people think twice about daily SOV commuting. And the choice is not binary. It’s not either 1. drive SOLO every day or 2. carpool every day.

    It’s carpool on SOME days and SOV on other days but the overall trend will be reduced SOV driving.

    worse things could happen to us. Most people in other countries drive about 1/2 what we do and they usually do it in cars that are twice as efficient as our cars.

    We’ll ultimately end up with less oil imports AND cleaner air quality in our urban areas.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Famous autopsy report:

    On average, the deceased’s arteries were only 2% blocked.

    World congestion statistics?

  3. I never bought into the idea that cars were all that great. At age 16, newly in the working world, I figured they were just a money sink, so I never bought one. Instead, I bought a bicycle. Never regretted that decision once. Now, at 50, I never go to the gym, yet because I use my muscles instead of gasoline to power my daily commute, I have the physique of a man half my age. And my vehicle’s yearly cost is about 1/10th that of a car – and no one even notices that I’m driving a nearly 20 year-old clunker, so I don’t have to impress the boss by replacing my ride every five years.

    Would I ever consider joining the masses stuck every morning and evening in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway? Hell no!

    1. Good for you! Just one question. The cost of maintaining your bicycle is one-tenth that of a car? That sounds like a lot. What do you spend money on? Inner tubes? Pimping up your bike?

  4. evsroll Avatar

    Great article and great news.

    The peaking and possible downward trend of personal automotive transit is exactly what is needed to help clean up our air and increase our health.

    Walk, ride a bike, eBike, deriv an EV, or take transit.


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