Traffic backs-up going south into Mexico in the border town of San Ysidro, California. September 3, 2015. Mike Blake/Reuters

America hit peak car ownership in 2006. The numbers have been declining since—until recently.

Ah, 2006! It was a simpler time. Justin Timberlake had brought “SexyBack” to everyone’s iPods. Big Momma’s House 2 was in movie theaters. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth magically convinced everyone that global warming was real. And the weirdest political scandal of the year involved the vice-president shooting his friend in the face while quail hunting.

That was also the year I got my driver’s license in high school: I inherited my family’s grey 1990 Subaru Legacy and officially joined some 202 million other drivers on U.S. roads.

That may have represented a pivotal moment in the long American romance with the automobile: In 2006, the nation had an average of .786 cars per person and 2.050 per household. Vehicle miles traveled peaked in 2004, with 9,314 miles per person and 24,349 miles per person. America had hit Peak Car.

After 2006, car ownership and vehicle miles began declining. But the latest installment of this research, conducted by Michael Sivak, who heads the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation research consortium—shows a hint of a rebound. In 2015, vehicle ownership rates ticked up 1.4 percent on average from 2012. Car ownership went from .744 per person in 2012 to .756 per person in 2015 and from 1.27 per household in 2013 to 1.95 per household in 2015. Distance-driven rates on average increased 2.1 percent, from 8,461 miles per person and 21,866 miles per household in 2012 to 8,648 miles per person and 22,311 miles per household.

Average vehicle ownership from 1984 to 2015 in the United States. (Michael Sivak/University of Michigan)

Friends and foes of car-centric planning have been fervently debating whether the post-2006 driving decline was a recession-driven trough or a reflection of the fact that younger Americans, with their Uber-hailing aversion to car ownership, were truly driving the automobile age to an early grave.

Sivak says he has yet to run analysis of contributing variables and is cautious to speculate on whether what were are seeing now is a blip. "I think that we will need to have the data for the next three years or so,” Sivak writes in an email to CityLab, “to see whether the recent increases represent the beginning of a long-term trend."

The wild card here, as everywhere, is Donald Trump. The new administration’s pledge to roll back environmental and safety regulations might conceivably (eventually) make new car ownership cheaper and lure some Millennials back behind the wheel. (Especially if federal support for mass transit drops off the face of the earth.) On the other hand, the president’s proposed 20 percent tax on goods from Mexico would do the opposite.

Check back here in three years to see who won this argument.

About the Author

Andrew Small
Andrew Small

Andrew Small is an editorial fellow at CityLab.

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