Shutterstock

Not only do we now own fewer cars. We're also driving each of them less.

The handy thing about "peak car" as a concept is that it can nominally be proven in many ways. You’ve got Peak Driver’s License. Peak Registered Vehicle. Peak Gas Consumption. Peak Miles Traveled. There are peaks per person, per household, per demographic. Then you've got your absolute peaks when you add up all of our vehicles and miles together, as if we were all cruising the highways at the same time.

The point of all of this is that any one number is a little dubious, especially in light of that inconvenient economic recession. But Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has been methodically slicing the question every which way. And the totality of the picture he's built is starting to look pretty convincing.

Earlier this summer, Sivak released data showing that the number of registered light-duty vehicles in America (cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, vans) had peaked per person, per licensed driver and per household in the early to mid 2000s, before the onset of the recession. Because the U.S. population continues to grow, he predicted that the absolute number of vehicles had not yet peaked. But per person and household, we seem willing now to own fewer of the things.

Now he has released a follow-up study [PDF] of how much we drive. As a nation, our total mileage has leveled off (but again, because the population continues to grow, we may surpass this 2006 peak again):

Distance Driven by Light-Duty Vehicles, 1984-2011

More importantly, here is that same data crunched by individual person, vehicle and household, removing the factor of the ever-expanding population:

All of the peaks on that chart occur around 2004, a time that predates both the recession and the housing bust. That means, Sivak suggests, that other factors beyond the temporary state of the economy may be driving these downward trends, from the rise of telecommuting, urbanization and public transit usage to fundamental shifts in the age demographics of drivers. It's possible that miles driven per car alone will tick up as households come to rely on fewer of them, or as more people join car and ride-sharing services (or as we all pile into autonomous cars that never need to park!). But that would be a good sign that we're using vehicles more efficiently.

Put together, these two studies from Sivak suggest that Americans are now driving fewer vehicles than we used to, but also that we're driving each of those vehicles less. "This is an important finding of a double reduction," Sivak writes, "because one does not necessarily lead to the other."

Top image: Vitaly Korovin/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a small small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley that sold for $1.8 million in 2014.
    Equity

    Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning

    As cities wake up to their housing crises, the problems with single-family-home residential zoning will become too egregious to ignore.

  3. A photo of British Prime Minister Theresa May announcing her government's Brexit deal outside No. 10 Downing Street
    Equity

    Britain Finally Has a Brexit Deal. Everyone Hates It.

    Amid resignations, it's clear the U.K. government massively misjudged how leaving the European Union would play out.

  4. A man holding a toddler walks past open-house signs in front of condominiums for sale.
    Life

    Millennials Are More Likely to Buy Their First Homes in Cities

    New research finds that Millennials are 21 percent more likely to buy their first homes near city centers than Generation X.

  5. Morgan Stanley headquarters in New York City
    Life

    The Geography of Corporate Headquarters

    Complaints that Amazon HQ2 locations are already superstar cities don’t recognize a counter-trend of Fortune 500 corporate headquarters relocations, new data shows.