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As the average number of miles driven by Americans heads into its eighth year of decline, a new report from the Arizona PIRG Education Fund finds that the slowdown in driving is likely to continue. The report, A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, noted that demographic changes will likely keep driving down for decades. Baby Boomers are moving out of the phase in their life when they do the most commuting, and as the Millennial generation is becoming increasingly driving-averse.
“The Driving Boom is over,” said Serena Unrein, Public Interest Advocate for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. “The constant increases we saw in driving up until almost a decade ago show no sign of returning. As more and more Millennials become adults, and their tendency to drive less becomes the norm, the reduction in driving likely will be even larger.”
Americans drive no more miles in total today than in 2004, and the average American currently drives no more miles than in 1996.
The Millennial generation is leading the change in transportation trends. 16 to 34-year-olds drove 23-percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001 – the greatest decline in driving of any age group. In addition, Millennials are more likely to want to live in urban and walkable neighborhoods and are more open to non-driving forms of transportation than the older generation of Americans.
The report found that under any reasonable scenario, the number of miles driven annually will be far fewer in the future than if the trends of the Baby Boomer generation had continued. During the second half of the 20th century, low gas prices, rapid suburbanization, and an ever-increasing number of women commuters entering the workforce fueled the Driving Boom. The factors that defined that period have since taken a back seat. Under some conservative scenarios outlined by the report, driving won’t regain its 2007 peak during the range of the study, which extends to 2040.
Yet official forecasts of future vehicle travel continue to assume steady increases in driving, despite the changing trends seen over the past decade. Those forecasts are used to justify spending vast sums on new and expanded highways, even as repairs to existing roads and bridges remain neglected.
“Our leaders need to recognize the momentous changes in transportation that have taken place over the last decade,” said Unrein. “The infrastructure we build today will mainly be used and paid for by the Millennials who are leading the trend away from driving.”
The report examines a number of high-profile official transportation forecasts and finds a consistent pattern of overestimating how much Americans will drive and only partially revising those forecasts when they prove to be incorrect. The government forecasts examined all fall above even the most conservative scenarios forecast in the report and all seem to be based on the assumption that the Driving Boom’s state of ongoing growth will last forever.
The change in driving trends will have huge implications for many aspects of Americans’ travel life:
- Coupled with improvements in fuel efficiency, reduced driving means Americans will use about half as much gasoline and other fuels in 2040 than they use today, making the real value of gas taxes fall as much as 74 percent. Gas taxes provide the chief source of federal transportation funds and a major source for many states.
- Traffic congestion will be less of a problem.
- Toll roads will be less financially viable.
- Many highway expansion projects will start to look like wasteful boondoggles.
- Forms of travel that are expanding in use, like public transit, will be a better investment.
“Given the magnitude of these trends and the implications for the future, we need to press the reset button on our transportation policy,” said Unrein. “We’re already seeing progress on this in Arizona, with the strong ridership on the Phoenix-area light rail and forward-thinking ideas like the City of Tempe’s youth transit pass program. We need more public officials to rethink their transportation policies with a better understanding of future driving and transportation trends.”
“We know that the shift to a combination of walking, biking, public transportation and car travel has a positive impact on public health. Getting there takes a thoughtful, community-engaged approach to creating more ‘Complete Streets.’ We fully support the several strong efforts underway to incorporate complete streets plans into general plans for Phoenix and many Arizona communities,” said Fred Karnas, CEO of St. Luke’s Health Initiatives.
An infographic explaining the findings of the report can be found here.
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