American urban driving is down, according to study

A study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Frontier Group, a think tank claiming to produce ideas and research to promote a cleaner environment and a fairer and more democratic society, claims that from 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per resident fell in almost three-quarters of America’s largest urbanized areas for which up-to-date and accurate data are available.

The numbers are small and the data, drawn from a range of public sources, are somewhat shaky but the overall and highly detailed analysis does suggest that a trend away from cars and towards public transportation and bicycles is underway. The report indicates that from 2004 to 2012, the average number of vehicle-miles driven per capita decreased by 7.6 percent and from 2007 – when Americans’ total vehicle travel peaked – to 2012, the total number of miles driven in America fell by 3.1 percent.

US PIRG reports that this trend has arisen because:

  • Americans are saturated with driving.
  • vehicle ownership per licensed driver has declined by 4 percent since 2006.
  • the percent of driving-age Americans holding licenses has declined. In 2011, 86 percent of driving age Americans held licenses, the lowest percentage in 30 years
  • Americans may be hitting the limit on the amount of time they are willing to spend in their cars each day.
  • workers tend to drive more miles than non-workers and the share of Americans in the labor force has dropped from its 2000 peak of 67.3 percent to 63.2 percent – the lowest level since 1978.
  • with baby boomers retiring, a greater share of Americans are entering age groups that have historically driven fewer miles.
  • from 2002 to 2012, the average inflation-adjusted price of a gallon of gasoline doubled and put car ownership out of reach for many families.
  • Americans are increasingly choosing other modes of transportation – light rail, buses, trains, bicycles or walking – for trips they might once have taken by car,

If similar trends are applicable to Canada, medium to long-term consequences could include such trends as:

  • a natural end to urban sprawl.
  • preference for local shopping rather than big box stores located in suburban areas.
  • a greater need for delivery services.
  • a need to rethink parking requirements to reduce the number of vacant spaces.
  • increased government emphasis on public transportation rather than building of more roads.
  • employees moving closer to places of employment requiring a transition to greater integration of residential, commercial, industrial and institutional land uses rather than their segregation as so often occurs at present.
  • reduced requirement for petroleum fuels and fuel distribution locations.

The 36 page US PIRG report Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities is available at

A related 53 page report, commenting more on the implications of reduced automobile use, is entitled A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future is available at

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