American driving habits peaked in 2004-2005, before the recession

Check out a number of charts about American driving habits and they tend to agree: the amount of driving and gas consumption plateaued or declined starting in 2004-2005.

So, technically speaking, the two-car garage is no longer average. Realistically speaking, plenty of suburban households have a pair of Explorers or Civics sitting in their driveways. And thanks to population growth, the total number of vehicles on the road has started rising again.  (So no need to shed tears for Detroit, yet.) But, in the end, individual families aren’t buying quite so many vehicles as a few years ago…

Americans are also spending far less time in the cars they do own. The average U.S. driver traveled 12,492 miles in 2011, down about 1,200 miles, or 9 percent, from our mid-aughts peak…

Lower mileage, along with more fuel-efficient vehicles, has in turn slashed our fuel consumption. Collectively, we haven’t pumped this little gas since the 1990s…

All of these changes have something intriguing in common: They started well before the financial crisis and recession. The number of cars per household peaked in 2005. Miles-per-driver peaked in 2004, as so did gas use. Which is to say, as Sivak does, that it would be silly to pin these changes entirely on the downturn.

Of course, there are still plenty of cars on the roads and lots of driving, particularly due to population growth. But, in terms of individual habits, driving has decreased as has gas consumption. Three quick questions:

1. Is this a good thing for environmentalists and those opposed to sprawl? One way to think about this is to ask whether the individual-level declines are enough to offset the still-increasing number of cars due to more people.

2. For policy makers, is it better to pursue better gas mileage or getting more cars off the roads in the first place? To put it another way, is the enemy just gas guzzlers like pick-up trucks and SUVs or is the problem all cars? The second option is less popular though both could be pursued: think stricter gas mileage standards for cars and promoting more New Urbanist and dense development.

3. Just how much decline might we expect in the future? It is one thing to cut back on driving but most Americans can’t get rid of it all together or even cut it in half by fifty percent.

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