Where has peak car gone?
For a few years it looked like we might have passed ‘peak car’, a concept that we wrote about a few times. But then – slowly at first, and then more rapidly – America’s love story with the automobile came back. Car sales climbed steadily back up over the years, to the point that 2015 could set a new record, and this despite all the op-eds about how Millennials didn’t care about cars. The total number of miles driven spiked in the country spiked, eclipsing the 2007 peak during the first half of this year. It’s not just the number that is big, but the rate at which it is growing.
Have a look at this graph of traffic volume on U.S. roads from the Federal Highway Administration:
Federal Highway Administration /Public Domain
As you can see, there were cycles in the 1990s, but even the lows never went negative, and the peaks tended to become lower and lower over time. The 2008-2009 financial crisis and recession was an entirely different animal: Traffic volume didn’t just grow slower, it went into deeply negative territory, and even a few years after it was technically over, growth in volume didn’t recover. Until 2015, the peaks were nowhere near as high as before, making many believe that maybe we had reached ‘peak car’ in the country.
Well, obviously 2015 is changing this. U.S. motorists drove 3.12 trillion miles in the 12 months ending in September 2015, an increase of 3.4% compared to the same period the previous year. The spike is the biggest one since 1997, and it might not have peaked yet, so maybe we’ll have to go even farther back to find a comparable rate of growth in traffic volume…
Our first thought might be to blame this on fuel prices, but as Reuters reports, “In general, demographic factors (population) and economic ones (employment, income and GDP) have a bigger impact on traffic volumes than fuel prices.”
Gasoline consumption is four times as responsive to a small change in average real personal disposable income as a small change in prices, according to Hendrik Houthakker, Philip Verleger and Dennis Sheehan, who conducted a detailed study of gasoline consumption in the 1960s and early 1970s.
So it looks like when the economy is strengthening, people will drive more. One more reason to offer good alternatives, like mass transit, safe bike infrastructure, cities designed for walking, etc. But also to hasten the transition to electric transportation, as many people – especially those outside dense urban areas – will keep driving. EVs, combined with a progressively cleaner power grid, has the potential to make a huge difference to what is one of most people’s biggest sources of environmental impact (transportation).