D. Dowd Muska


How Staying Put Can Change So Much

October 03, 2013

It’s the most interesting trend in American life. You probably haven’t heard anything about it.

Here’s a nine-word nutshell: We’re not moving around the way we used to.

Driving is on the decline, and if the dropoff lasts, it’s a shift with profound implications for taxes, infrastructure, energy policy, and environmental regulation.

Before we examine the causes and consequences, let’s look at the raw data. Vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) is a metric commonly compiled to assess volume on “public” roads and highways. In 2007, as the housing bust intensified and the Great Recession struck, it crested 3 trillion. But even with some population growth, the following years saw VMT dip:

2008 2.98 trillion

2009 2.96 trillion

2010 2.97 trillion

2011 2.95 trillion

2012 2.95 trillion

Less driving, coupled with the purchase of high-MPG autos, is reducing fuel consumption. In the peak VMT year of 2007, the nation burned 3.39 billion barrels of gasoline. Demand has yet to recover:

2008 3.29 billion

2009 3.28 billion

2010 3.28 billion

2011 3.20 billion

2012 3.18 billion

Temporary blips? A soon-to-be-reversed product of Bush-Obama Keynesianism? Perhaps. But moribund motoring is all but unknown in the postwar era. As a May report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group documented, between “1970 and 2004, the number of [VMT] per capita skyrocketed by 85 percent” -- a phenomenon the far-left group calls the “Driving Boom.” It was real. It was sustained. And now, it might be over.

“Driving,” wrote U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall, “is an activity that is highly dependent on one’s stage of life. People in their prime earning and child-rearing years tend to drive the most, as they commute to jobs, shuttle children to activities, and often opt to live in more spacious suburban communities that are also more auto-dependent.”

Federal data show that Americans in their thirties and forties log about twice as many miles on the road as young adults and senior citizens. As Baby Boomers age, retirement communities and golf carts are replacing McMansions and SUVs. Teens, lots of whom socialize in cyberspace rather than malls, are obtaining licenses at a shockingly low rate. Millennials might be expected to experience rush-hour frustrations when their grown-up lives begin, yet there are reasons for skepticism. A metastasizing welfare state discourages job-seeking. For the employed, working at home and telepresence tech cut car commuting and business trips. With the birth rate at a record low and no indications of a rebound, tot-induced travel is shrinking.

Pricey gasoline, demographic shifts, nifty communications gizmos, politicians and bureaucrats dedicated to economic calamity -- it’s reasonable to assume that a new transportation reality is dawning. It’s a universe that presents potential delights and hypothetical horrors.

Among the desirable outcomes: The deflation of hysteria about “climate change.” No, Al Gore won’t shut up -- ever, one suspects -- but it will be tougher for the cap-and-tax lobby to hector Americans about their evil energy ways. Only the power-generation industry emits more carbon dioxide than the transportation sector. Fuse a dearth in driving with natural gas’s displacement of coal as the prime fuel for electricity, and America becomes a CO2 piker. (As The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, “since 2005, U.S. emissions have fallen faster than Europe’s.”)

The vanquishment of foreign-oil scolds would be another benefit of curbed auto use. Ebbing gasoline demand, along with booming production of petroleum, mean that one day, every gallon pumped into a U.S.-based car will trace its origin to the homeland. “Oil dependence” was never a crisis -- even during its period of maximum share, the Persian Gulf didn’t sell much crude here. Still, it will be heavenly to enjoy the silence from neocons no longer able to caterwaul about how a fill-up “funds terrorism.”

Looking on the dark side, bicycles and “mass transit” rank as high on moonbats’ priority list as organic veggies and late-term abortions. Advocates for “sustainable transportation” are likely to take credit for driving’s decline, and double down on their policy recommendations. The agenda will include more motorist-paid subsidies for bike paths, huge new giveaways to government-run buses and trains (and their unionized, campaign-contributing, oft-voting operators), additional perks for politically connected investors in “transit-oriented development,” and the end of highway-capacity expansions in congested communities. Taxpayers, whether car owners or not, should respond with a polite but firm “no thanks.”

Automobiles have provided freedom and convenience to this curious, restless and ambitious Republic. If driving is to play a smaller role in our lives, let’s process the change sensibly.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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