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We're Buying Fewer Cars, Driving Fewer Miles—and Buying Less Gas

Evidence keeps mounting that Americans' love affair with the car, while hardly over, has entered a new phase.
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A gas station near Lost Hills, California. (PHOTO: COOLCAESAR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A gas station near Lost Hills, California. (PHOTO: COOLCAESAR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

It’s not quite Lord of the Rings or Toy Story, but the University of Michigan’s Michael Sivak has hit a threequel of studies suggesting that the U.S. has reached the era of peak cars.

So far this year, Sivak has approached the question by looking first at vehicle registrations—they’re down per capita in the U.S. and have been for some time—and then at miles traveled—also down per capita. Assuming we have fewer vehicles per person and those vehicles are being driven less, Sivak theorizes that sales of gasoline and diesel should be down. And after parsing the latest statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, he finds that is the case.

“The bottom line,” he writes, putting it in bold to be extra clear, “We drive fewer light-duty vehicles, we drive each of them less, and we consume less fuel.” These trends predated the Great Recession, and with other societal signposts, such as fewer young people getting drivers licenses, the evidence is mounting that something fundamental has changed, and this isn’t just an artifact of the Great Recession.

Annual fuel consumption: 398 gallons per person, 585 gallons per licensed driver, 1,033 gallons per household, and 530 gallons per registered vehicle.

Some housekeeping: A light vehicle is a passenger car, SUV, pickup truck, or van. And these figures, all for privately owned vehicles, are calculated per capita. Because the U.S. population is growing, some absolute numbers don’t always jibe—a falling percentage of a growing number can still produce higher absolute numbers. (For the record, new car sales so far this year generally are up; used car sales are down.)

And what about the recession, with its trifecta of high unemployment, stagnant wages, and expensive gas? It was blamed or lauded for everything from reduced carbon emissions to fewer babies, and both of those are expected to rebound as the economy strengthens. Why not cars?

Because the downward spiral was already in play. Sivak shows that the peak year for each of his three indicators came before the meltdown. In the case of vehicles per person, licensed driver, and household, it peaked between 2001 and 2006. For miles driven per person, driver, household, and individual car, it peaked in 2004. And for fuel burnt, 2003 to 2004. In fact, we haven’t consumed so little gas and diesel per entity since 1984, the year U of M’s Transportation Research Institute started making these kind of analyses.

Since these numbers were already falling before times got tough, Sivak argues the trend was merely reinforced, not foisted, by the recession. Intuitively, at least for me, this suggests the reality of more-expensive—but not Euro-expensive—gas finally has sunk in. It may get a little cheaper, but it will never be cheap—and definitely not Venezuela-cheap—again.

And so fuel consumption has shown the greatest decline from its peak, falling 13 to 17 percent compared to the five to nine percent drop in miles driven. The obvious reason for that is improved fuel efficiency, driven both by government mandate and higher fuel prices. Sivak suggests but doesn’t totally own the idea that we won’t see per capita fuel consumption return to that 2004 peak (just under 139 billion gallons that year used in light vehicles, both commercial and private). For example, if Americans start to dispose of our excess Camrys, SUVs, and F-150s so that the remaining vehicles get used a lot more, per vehicle miles and gas use will rise.

Meanwhile, here’s Sivak’s latest estimates of annual fuel consumption: 398 gallons per person, 585 gallons per licensed driver, 1,033 gallons per household, and 530 gallons per registered vehicle.

How this plays out in other arenas bears watching. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency today announced it was thinking of requiring less production of renewable fuels next year. Federal biofuels mandates set up how much biofuel to produce, not what percentage of the total petro-pie that must come from biofuels, and with less gas needed, the EPA says, we either need fewer biofuels or higher percentages of these petroleum substitutes in our fossil fuels. They opted at this point for fewer biofuels and leaving the ethanol component at roughly 10 percent, the so-called “E10 blend wall.”

Real life isn’t quite so cut and dried, of course. Seems those perennial punching bags the oil companies in general wanted to scale back the use of renewable fuels, and since it was the oil companies, well, of course ... except that scaling back corn ethanol is something many environmentalists want, too, since biofuels made of corn—as opposed to the more acceptable cellulosic and biomass-based fuels—are produced in ways that tend to hurt the environment.

Corn growers and ethanol manufacturers, not surprisingly, see dire results from the cutbacks, for their own interests, of course, but also for Americans. (“Under this rule, American drivers and American farmers lose and Big Oil wins.”) Oddly enough, big oil Big Oil also has Americans’ interests at heart in wanting greater cutbacks than the EPA is considering. (“While the agency took a step in the right direction, more must be done to ensure Americans have the choice of ethanol-free gasoline.”)

Americans themselves, meanwhile, are voting with their feet, or at least their right foot. They're letting off the gas.