Researchers Divided as to Why Automobile Usage Continues to Decline in U.S.

Has America’s love affair with the automobile come to the end of the road?

According to a study conducted by Transportation Department economists Don Pickrell and David Pace, Americans have been driving fewer miles, and per capita automobile use has returned to the same levels as in the late 1990s.

In July 2004, American drivers put an average of just over 900 miles per month on their vehicles. That number had fallen to just 820 miles per month by July of last year, and despite encouraging signs that the economy is recovering, the Federal Highway Administration reports that vehicle miles traveled were down slightly during the first half of this year.

Additionally troubling to automakers is the fact that the number of younger Americans with their driver’s licenses has dropped significantly in recent years.

Some researchers claim the trends are tied to the economy, and contend that Americans’ love for driving will bloom again, once it fully recovers.

Other industry experts say the trends indicate a fundamental change in attitude toward the automobile. They point to a number of factors, including high gas prices, congested roads, and cultural evolution for the declining appeal of the automobile.

Travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin says, “The idea that the car means freedom, I think, is over.” From a cultural perspective, she also says, “The car as a fetish of masculinity is probably over for certain age groups. I don’t think young men care as much about the car they drive as they use to.”

Today’s vehicles are complex, computerized machines that require little maintenance from their owners. “You can’t open the hood and get to know it the way you used to,” says McGuckin.

Cultural and demographic changes have also had an impact on driving habits. The evolution of social media and online shopping and the rise in the popularity of public transportation have made car ownership less important to many younger Americans.

Baby boomers have made up the largest percentage of vehicle users in the U.S. for decades, but “Commuting in America” author Alan Pisarski says this group has begun “moving toward a quieter transportation lifestyle.”

Still some, including the Center for Automotive Research’s chief economist Sean McAlinden, point to the economy as the single largest factor affecting lower vehicle usage. He says the situation will turn around once the economy fully rebounds.  “It might last if the economics stay the same,” says McAlinden. “But if they improve, I think people will come back to driving more. Give a person a good job 25 miles away and they’ll be at the dealership the next morning.”

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