Fast Company is the latest media outlet to trumpet the decline of driving, with a look at the phenomenon dubbed “peak car use.”
In an article titled “We Are Approaching Peak Car Use,” the magazine examines an Australian study [PDF] which found driving rates are falling in a number of cities in Europe, North America and Australia.
Explanations include rising fuel prices, the increasing appeal of urbanism, and another interesting theory: that many urban areas have reached the limit people are willing to drive as part of their daily commute (about one hour).
The study authors conclude that traffic engineers need to change their models and rethink the assumption that traffic will increase annually.
Meanwhile, new data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics adds to the body of research about the decline in driving — but whether that amounts to “peak car use” is worth further consideration. The report shows a leveling off in vehicle miles traveled, beginning at the end of 2007.
Between 1980 and 2007, urban vehicle miles traveled increased 133 percent, or almost five percent annually. But from 2007 to 2009, urban driving held steady. The change in driving in rural areas was more impressive. Rural vehicle miles traveled declined four percent from 2007 to 2009 after increasing at an average rate of two percent annually between 1980 and 2007.
These numbers don’t point to a cause. But the decline in driving aligns pretty well with the greatest period of economic contraction in a generation. And driving declines have long been linked to recessions. Which leaves us wondering: Is the decline part of a lasting trend, or does it just reflect a cyclical pattern tied to the economy?