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Americans drive less even as economy rebounds

Americans are driving less, but experts are having a difficult time pinpointing why -- telecommuting? Unemployment? Online shopping?
Americans are driving less, but experts are having a difficult time pinpointing why -- telecommuting? Unemployment? Online shopping?Matt Nighswander / NBC News

Fewer people at work, fewer people driving. It’s a simple equation and one that a lot of experts use to explain the notable drop in the total miles U.S. motorists clocked during the depths of the recession.

So how to explain that even as the economy shows real signs of recovery the number of miles driven continues to decline? That report from the Federal Highway Administration is just the latest indication that Americans may be falling out of love with their automobiles.

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“For almost 40 years, auto usage, as measured by vehicle miles traveled, closely tracked real gross domestic product. (Miles traveled) dropped during the most recent recession, as it has during previous ones. But unlike after prior recessions, it still hasn't recovered,” notes a report from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

The study by Volpe Transportation Center researchers Don Pickrell and David Pace found that the number of miles individuals are driving has been declining sharply in recent years. That figure peaked at an average 900 miles per month in July 2004. By July 2012 it was down to 820 a month, a figure the researchers hadn’t seen since the final years of the last Millennium.

"Some causes aren't new," said Pace. "Car ownership is essentially at its saturation point. Baby boomers drive less as they age. It's more expensive to purchase and own a car."

Younger motorists may be driving less not only because of the cost of buying and operating a vehicle but also because of new restrictions on teen licensing. 

The Volpe study discovered some other, unexpected shifts. There’s been a notable drop in the vehicle miles traveled by young adults, a group that traditional clocked more miles than most other groups, especially in a positive economic cycle.

Other observations:

·      The decline in driving has been much more significant among men than women;

·      Driving by men has, in fact, declined in every age group except for those older than 65;

· Miles driven by women between the ages of 20 to 34 has dropped since the early part of this millennium.

Women older than their mid-30s are driving more, however, as are seniors of both genders.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the two researchers contend the decline in vehicle miles traveled does not reflect a switch to other modes of transportation, whether mass transit, biking or walking. While there are clearly more telecommuters, their study found that accounted for barely 1 percent of the overall decline. Even the growth in e-shopping didn’t explain what is happening.

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Other recent studies, including one produced by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, have found similar signs that Americans are spending less time in their cars, waiting longer to get their drivers licenses and, in general, seeming to be falling out of love with the automobile.

“A growing number of Americans (feel) they (don’t) need or want a personal car,” said researcher Art Spinella, of CNW Marketing, whose study of carless households found the number has doubled over the past two decades and is on trend to reach as much as 10 percent this year.

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Automotive proponents are encouraged that the U.S. new car market is growing at a double-digit pace this year and consulting firm LMC Automotive now forecasts total sales will reach 15.6 million for all of 2013, up from 14.5 million the year before. That would, however, still be almost 2 million below the industry’s prior, post-recession peak. 

If anything, a study released by R.L. Polk this past month found that the age of the average vehicle on the road climbed from 11.2 years in 2012 to 11.4 years -- even with the automotive market rebounding so fast that manufacturers are struggling to overcome capacity shortages. That’s a record – and a big jump from the average 9.7 years Polk reported a decade ago.

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"The car as a fetish of masculinity is probably over for certain age groups," transportation behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin told the Associated Press. "I don't think young men care as much about the car they drive as they use to."

Does it matter? The impact of a culture less enamored of the automobile could have a widespread impact, and not on just those who once wrote songs like “My Hot Rod Lincoln,” or “Little Red Corvette.”

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Money once spent on automobiles appears to be diverted elsewhere.

Since automobile manufacturing, sales and service are major sources of employment and a big factor in the nation’s GDP, the shift could have tremendous repercussions for the future. The Volpe study even points to the already under-funded federal Highway Trust Fund which could be even harder-pressed to cover the cost of infrastructure maintenance.

Every mile motorists cut out of their driving plans could have a significant impact on the future.

Read more: Even as Economy Rebounds, Americans Drive Less