May 22, 2012

NO THIRD RAIL:

Our cooling love affair with driving (Charles Lane, 5/21/12, Washington Post)

Good news for Memorial Day weekend: Since peaking at a national average of $3.93 on April 5, the price of regular gasoline has fallen almost 25 cents per gallon. That's like a $25 billion tax cut for consumers. In fact, gasoline is cheaper now than it was a year ago at this time. Futures markets are signaling further possible declines. [...]

Meanwhile, gasoline demand in April was down by more than four percentage points from a year earlier, according to consumer spending data assembled by MasterCard. Yet other retail spending held up. Apparently, people coped with higher gas prices by staying home and shopping online rather than driving to the store.

If this trend persists, it would not be the only way in which technology is changing U.S. gasoline consumption.

Getting a driver's license is no longer the rite of passage it once was. (I was thrilled when I got mine in the late '70s, and so was Dad, because it meant someone else could take the car to wait in the gas lines.) Only 28.7 percent of 16-year-olds got their licenses in 2010, down from 44.7 percent in 1988. The decline in teen driving may reflect not only safety and economic concerns but also the impact of cell phone technology, which makes it easier for youngsters to stay in touch without actually, er, touching.

More broadly, Americans just seem to be driving less, after decades in which the trend was up, up, up. As Rob Puentes and Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institution have shown, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita began to level off in 2000 -- while the economy was still booming and gas was relatively cheap. VMT per capita in 2011 was roughly 9,500 miles, about the same as in 1997.

American car-ownership and driving expanded rapidly after 1960 because of suburban sprawl, the entry of millions of women into the workforce and the emergence of a black middle class. Those social and demographic transformations have largely worked their way through the system, Puentes told me.

America's love affair with the car may never end. But it does seem to be cooling down; it's more like a stable marriage than a red-hot romance.

Posted by at May 22, 2012 5:31 AM
  

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