At least not if you take population growth into account.
In posting the above chart, Brad Plumer at Vox writes that “peak car” was just a myth and that Americans are apparently driving more than ever. If you’re on the road to a Thanksgiving get together right now, that might seem like a reasonable conclusion. And indeed “vehicle miles traveled,” the primary metric for U.S. driving habits, has been on the rise—up 3.5 percent on the previous year, as of September.
But when you adjust VMT for the driving population, you get a very different picture. As it happens, Doug Short at Advisor Perspectives did just that last week. Turns out VMT per capita is on the way up in 2015 but remains a full 6 percent off the all-time peak hit in mid-2005. Instead of suggesting that Americans are driving more than ever, Short describes U.S. driving as being “about where we were as a nation in June of 1997.”
For good measure, Short also checked out VMT per capita considering the entire population—not just people over age 16. The difference is one of degree, not kind. By this measure, driving is about 4 percent off the 2005 peak, and in line with patterns in August 2000.
So for now, at least, there’s little reason to see “peak car” as a myth that’s been debunked.
Where Plumer is onto something is his suggestion that cheap gas has led to this year’s VMT surge. Indeed, as Joe Cortright at City Observatory has reminded us recently, when fuel prices go down, vehicle mileage eventually goes up (along with all the negative externalities that come with it, like road deaths). Economics obviously play a role in driving habits—perhaps the largest one. Still, the fact that so many U.S. states hit their peak well before the recession is all the more reason to believe that there’s a new normal when it comes to our roads that isn’t entirely bound to financial fortunes, and to respond accordingly.