Americans Driving Less, Looking for Better Options

Posted 07/16/12 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Trail Use, Policy

Photo of commuters in New York © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Central to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) mission is the idea that when it comes to getting from A to B, it is important to give people more options than a motor vehicle, and that powering ourselves, by foot or by wheel, has better outcomes for our health, our environment and our economy.

We have long known that Americans are eager to get out of their cars and travel other ways whenever they can, and now the data supporting that continues to pile up.

A new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) and the Frontier Group demonstrates that Americans have been driving less since the middle of last decade. The report,Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy, shows that young people in particular are decreasing the amount they drive and increasing their use of transportation alternatives.

While federal and state governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace, the changing transportation preferences of young people--and Americans overall--throw those assumptions into doubt.

Graph © USPIRG and the Frontier Group

The report reveals that for the first time since World War II, Americans are driving less. In 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004. This trend away from driving is even more pronounced among people aged 16 - 34. This group drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than the average young person in 2001. The report also notes that a growing number of young Americans do not have driver's licenses; from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.

"America's transportation preferences appear to be changing. Our elected officials need to make transportation decisions based on the real needs of Americans in the 21st century... especially when transportation dollars are so scarce," says USPIRG's Phineas Baxandall, a co-author of the report.

The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting, even after the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons--higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support public transit and biking and walking, and changes in Generation Y's values and preferences--all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

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