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Americans Are Dumping Their Cars

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More people are relying on public transportation in a time of high gas prices, and young adults in particular don't really want a set of wheels.

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It may be hard to believe, especially if your commute involves a daily trial-by-traffic jam, but there indications that many Americans are driving less.

Business Insider recently looked at some very informative graphs on this topic. One from the Department of Transportation shows the number of US vehicle miles driven, which had been rising steadily since the 1970s, declined at the start of the recession in 2008 and has remained flat ever since. Another graph, from the traffic information service Inrix, notes average commute times during peak hours have also been dropping steadily as gas prices rise.
Source: VeracityVoice

Some of these trends in our driving habits may reflect a changing economy. The recession certainly prompted many cash-strapped drivers to economize and cut back on unnecessary trips.

But a study done last spring by the Frontier Group and the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (.pdf download) found that Americans have been driving less since the start of the new millennium, well before the recession -- and that the average American was driving 6% less per year in 2011 compared with 2004.

New technologies also have us driving less. Why risk a traffic delay en route to an office meeting when everyone can teleconference? And if you can shop online, you can probably give up an extra trip or two to local mall.

Another factor is people ages 16 to 34, who the study says are driving less than previous generations and more readily adopting non-car transportation alternatives.

The Urban Land Institute reports that many younger Americans are opting go without a car in exchange for living in smaller homes near public transportation and in communities that have amenities like shops and restaurants within walking distance. For many young adults, according to the ULI's annual report, "affordable mass transit beats the hassle and expense of owning a car (not just loan payments, insurance, repairs, gas, but also parking). Others rent when they need to drive, using shared cars."

Many researchers, in fact, "are seeing the young with no interest in cars and driving," Alan Pisarski, a transportation and traffic trends analyst, told Business Insider, "at the same time that joblessness among the young is colossal -- not to mention their parents' joblessness -- or their college loans."

And with more older drivers handing in their car keys, public transportation becoming faster and more reliable, more people living in urban areas and gas prices remaining high, some observers wonder whether driving in developed nations has reached a saturation point.

The concept of what The Economist calls "peak car" is far from certain. And the magazine acknowledges that there's a good chance economic recovery will put more people back in driver's seats -- especially in developing nations where car sales are booming.

But it notes that countries like China, which has the world's biggest car market, might hit the "sprawl wall" sooner than developed nations did and find gridlock and poor air quality not worth the trade-off.

Editor's Note: This story by Bruce Kennedy was originally published on MSN moneyNOW.

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