Problem, research strategy, and findings: We examine why American driving fell between 2004 and 2013, weighing two explanations: that Americans voluntarily moved away from driving (“peak car”), and that economic hardship reduced driving. We analyze aggregate data on travel, incomes, debt, public opinion, and Internet access. These data lack the precision of microdata, but unlike microdata are available annually for years before, during, and after driving’s decline. We find substantial evidence for the economic explanation. During the downturn the cost of driving rose while median incomes fell. The economy grew overall, but did so unequally. Mass driving requires a mass middle class, but economic gains accrued largely to the most affluent. We find less evidence for “peak car.” If Americans voluntarily drove less, they would likely use other modes more. However, despite heavy investment in bicycle infrastructure and public transportation in the 2000s, demand for these modes remained flat while driving fell. Takeaway for practice: If Americans were voluntarily abandoning automobiles for other modes, planners could reduce investments in automobile infrastructure and increase investments in alternative mobility. Driving’s decline, however, was not accompanied by a transit surge or substantial shift to other modes. The lesson of the driving downturn is that people drive less when driving’s price rises. Planners obviously do not want incomes to fall, but they should consider policies that increase driving’s price. Planners might also rethink the current direction of U.S. transit policy; transit use did not rise even when driving fell at an unprecedented pace.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Geography, Planning and Development
- Urban Studies