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Driving is making a big comeback in the US — after years of decline

A traffic jam going west on I-94 near the Michigan/Indiana border.
A traffic jam going west on I-94 near the Michigan/Indiana border.
K2D2vaca/Flickr

Ever since 2008, driving in the United States has been on the decline, leading some observers to wonder if we've finally hit "peak car."

Turns out that hasn't happened just yet. Over at Calculated Risk, Bill McBride points out that driving in the United States has surged over the past year — and the 12-month rolling average hit an all-time high this May:

(Calculated Risk/Department of Transportation)

Specifically, vehicle travel on all roads and streets was up 2.7 percent in May 2015 compared with May 2014. That's the sort of growth in car travel we saw back in the 1990s.

So what's going on here? A couple points:

1) First, note that this chart shows total vehicle travel in the United States. It doesn't adjust for population. Vehicle miles per capita is still well below its 2005 peak, although that's now starting to tick upward too.

2) Experts tend to think that US vehicle travel dipped after 2008 for a variety of reasons. There was a crushing recession, which meant that fewer people had jobs and commutes. Global oil prices had soared to record highs, which made gasoline more expensive and pushed people to cut back on driving. The Baby Boom generation was starting to retire and drive less. And, on top of that, there was some evidence that younger Americans were driving less than previous generations, though it wasn't entirely clear if that was a temporary or structural shift.

3) Obviously many of those factors have since shifted. The US economy has since lifted itself out of recession and is growing again. More jobs, more driving. The population also keeps expanding, which pushes overall vehicle travel up.

4) Perhaps most significantly, global oil prices have plummeted in the past year — thanks, in part, to booming US shale production and weaker demand abroad. That meant cheaper gasoline for American drivers:

(GasBuddy.com)

Most forecasters thought this plunge in gasoline prices would increase demand for car travel somewhat — though the recent surge in driving appears to be even larger than, say, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected last fall.

5) It's still very much unclear whether young people have soured on driving permanently (say, because they prefer living in urban areas with transit) or if they just soured on driving temporarily during the recession. Joseph Stromberg has a great deep dive into this, but it matters very much when predicting future trends.

At this point, it's difficult — maybe impossible — to say whether driving in the US will keep surging upward, or whether last year was a blip. But this question is crucially important for all sorts of reasons. States have to make predictions about future travel demand to plan highway and roads. If they overestimate future demand — as has happened since 2008 — they risk building unnecessary roads. But if they underestimate future demand, they risk not building enough infrastructure.

It also matters for climate and energy policy. The EIA forecasts that car and light truck travel will grow just 1.1 percent per year between now and 2040 — considerably slower than it used to. That, in turn, informs forecasts about US carbon dioxide emissions and climate change projections. But if US car travel ends up growing faster than expected (say, at the 2.7 percent clip of the past year), those projections will need to be revised.

Further reading:

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