Monday, May 20, 2013

Another Decline in Driving?

U.S. driving distance peaked in 2007, then dipped, essentially for the first time ever. Since 2010 driving has not changed much, but the March numbers showed a 1.5 percent decline from the year before, possibly signaling a new downward trend.

A year ago was the month of “summer in March,” and this year’s March was close to average, so some of the decline can be attributed to the weather. A 1.5 percent change, though, cannot be completely explained away by a weather pattern that affected a third of the country for half of the month. People are finding new ways to avoid driving: consolidating shopping trips, coordinating trips with friends, postponing some errands. Perhaps people are becoming more sensitive about the cost of driving. Some reports say cost is a bigger deterrent to Americans under 35 years old, though driving seems to be down across all age groups.

Most driving is driving to and from work, but driving is the only form of commuting that is not growing these days. More people are walking or bicycling than ever, and rail and bus, where available, are expanding too. There are some indications too that more people are working at home, though that data is mixed and contradictory.

Probably navigation has improved too, allowing drivers to take shorter and more direct routes. People use mobile devices including phones for automated navigation, and in spite of the flaws of mapping services, they still tend to be more accurate than hearsay. Better navigation couldn’t be a big factor — there aren’t that many trips that can be shortened by 10 percent — but it is one part of the bigger picture.

Less driving means less money spent on importing hydrocarbons for motor fuel, but it also has negative implications for retail and radio. People who stay home won’t make impulse purchases in the store, and it is not so easy to get people to listen to the radio at home. In the long run, cars used less last longer, further reducing the demand for new cars.