Wider fronts in the not-war on cars: the East Coast & the world

More data points that I’d meant to post in last week’s update from the trenches:

1. Doug Short has graphs of population-adjusted VMT going back to 1971. Interestingly, most of the decades seem to see pretty steady growth, with growth rates (relative to 1971, so not even accounting for the larger base) declining in the 1990s, leveling off in the early 2000s, and beginning a sharp decline thereafter. The cumulative effect of that curve? Americans drive about half as many miles as would have been projected in the late 1980s, based on the fast-growing trend line at that time. Time to shred all those old highway plans, folks! (Via Brad Plumer‘s latest post on VMT trends)

2. A bunch of papers and videos from the OECD on driving trends in the USA, France, Netherlands, Mexico, Japan, and Australia. (Also via Plumer.)

3. “Gasoline demand stayed flat in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico or in the Rockies. But on the East Coast, it has slipped 10% below its peak level…. it has accounted for half the overall drop since the [peak]… The more striking trend: East Coasters are simply driving less. Vehicle miles traveled in Northeast and South Atlantic states in the year ended in March were 4.2% lower than in the same period ended in September 2007. In the rest of the U.S., they are down just 0.5%.” — Liam Denning, WSJ

Vehicle mix also factors in: “Real Americans” are 2.62X more likely to buy pickups than us effete eastern elitists, and 11.6% less likely to buy a hybrid car, but I doubt that vehicle mix has changed enough over the past few years to explain the differing outcomes.

4. I took this photo in 2005; it was in 2004 that the VMT trend began to sputter. In 2013, the gas station has closed, and a Tesla dealership opened across the street. So yeah, it’s tough to be in the gas biz these days.

$4/gallon, here we come!

5. Of course, Todd Litman from VTPI is always more comprehensive about this topic than anyone else. Here’s his 30-page take, which he updates frequently.

6. Contrast these data points to the comparatively rosy (for carmakers, and therefore awful for the planet) scenario recently posited in the Economist:

One reason for concern is that half the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, which have only so much space for cars… Young urban residents may also be meeting up less often in person, thanks to social-networking sites that let them keep in touch digitally. So they have less need for a car… In particular, the generation who came of age after 2000, the so-called “millennials”, express a preference for having access to rather than owning cars…

[S]tudies also show a marked rise in the proportion of elderly people with driving licences. Baby-boomers pretty much all learned to drive, and now that they are beginning to retire they expect to continue motoring. The development of assisted driving, followed one day by fully automated cars, will allow them to stay mobile for much longer.

What may be happening in rich countries is a one-off shift in the timing of people’s driving careers, so that they start later but then continue well into old age. This may be no bad thing for carmakers… So it is not clear that declining car ownership among young urbanites will have more than a marginal effect on overall car sales….

All in all, “peak car”—the point at which worldwide demand for cars will stop rising—still seems quite a long way off. In the rich world some of the economic factors that have deterred young people from taking up driving will fade away: as cars become increasingly self-piloting and accident rates fall, insurance costs should decrease, and in time there will be little or no need to take expensive lessons.

Perhaps true, but retirees generally don’t travel very far, and VMT/capita drops off considerably at retirement. Crowded cities in developing Africa, Asia, and Latin America have less potential for car growth, and have arguably embraced many transportation innovations faster than the rich world has.

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  1. Pingback: Annals of Motordom – 64: NYC in ’39; Decline in VMT; Demographics | Price Tags

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