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2013-09-02 09:53

OUT ON THE OPEN ROAD: Researchers suggest that the appeal of driving a car in the US has waned in recent years as more road users choose public transport and walking as a means of commuting in order to avoid traffic. Image: AFP

After rising for decades the average distance road users cover in the USA has dropped and one expert believes the open road is no longer the pathway to freedom it once was. Is America's love affair with cars over?

WASHINGTON - Gone are the days of the car culture as immortalised in songs such as 'Mustang Sally', 'On The Road Again' and 'Pink Cadillac'. Driving in America has stalled, leading researchers to ask whether Americans have lost interest in automobiles.

After rising for decades, total vehicle use in the US peaked in 2007, dropped sharply during the recession and has largely plateaued by 2013. The Federal Highway Administration has reported total vehicle use during the first half of 2013 dropped slightly.


The average distance drivers travelled, peaked in 2004 at just less than 1450km per month, according to a study by US transportation department economists Don Pickrell and David Pace.

In 2012, average distance travelled dropped to 1320km/month, a decline of nine percent. The study reports per capita vehicle use has reportedly returned to the same levels as the late 1990's. Until the mid-1990s, driving levels largely tracked US economic growth, according to Pickrell and Pace. Since then, the US economy has grown and though gross domestic product declined during the recession, it picked up during 2009.

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for the US Public Interest Research Group, says a decline in driving means funding for transportation could be put to better  use: “You just don’t want to spend money you don’t have for highways you don’t need."

The decline in driving has important public policy implications. Among the potential benefits are less pollution, less dependence on foreign oil, reduced greenhouse emissions and fewer fatalities and injuries.

Less driving also means less federal and state fuel tax revenues, further reducing funds already in short supply for both highway and transit improvements. Less driving may also mean less traffic congestion, although the impact on congestion may vary regionally.


Road users in the their teens, 20's and 30's with driver’s licences has been dropping significantly, suggesting that obtaining a licence is no longer the teenage rite of passage it once was.

Researchers are divided on the reasons behind the trends. Some experts believes that the decline in driving reflects fundamental changes in the way Americans view cars. For commuters stuck in traffic, getting into a car no longer correlates with fun.

It’s also becoming more of a headache to own a car in cities and frustrating to find parking.

Travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin said: “The idea that the car means freedom, I think, is over. The car as a fetish of masculinity is probably over for certain age groups. I don’t think young men care as much about the car they drive as they use to.

“You can’t open the hood and get to know it the way you used to.”


Lifestyles are also changing. People are doing more of their shopping online. More people are taking public transit than ever before. Biking and walking to and from work is on the rise.

Social networking may also be substituting for some trips. A study by University of Michigan transportation researcher Michael Sivak, found that the decline in teens and young adults with driver’s licences in the US was mirrored in other wealthy countries with a high proportion of Internet users.

Economists say many Americans, especially teens and young adults, are finding that buying and owning a car stretches their financial resources, with the average price of a new car $31 000 (R317 000), according to the US Center for Automotive Research (CAR).

CAR analyst Sean McAlinden said: “We’re not selling to everyone. We’re selling to upper-middle class to upper class.”

“I don’t think it’s a change in people’s preferences. I think it’s all economics. It might last if the economics stay the same. If it improves, I think people will come back to driving more. Give a person a good job 40km away and they’ll be at the dealership the next morning.”

Read more on:    usa  |  drivers  |  cars  |  automotive  |  licence

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