Graph of the Day: Mapping a Post-Auto Economy

November 29, 2011

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination. Look at the American cities that are considered the most dynamic, exciting, and alluring, especially to the talented young professionals that every region seeks to attract. They all have been working hard to create alternatives to auto-based transport, to grow pedestrian friendly, human scale neighborhoods, and downtowns that offer something of a refuge from the traffic-choked aggravation that we’ve associated with city centers for generations now.

Add in the tight social networking of a new generation raised on the internet, the increasing availability of hybrid/electric cars, and you can understand why Exxon now predicts that gasoline use in the US has already peaked. 


Recent research suggests many young Americans prefer to spend their money and time chatting to their friends online, as opposed to the more traditional pastime of cruising around in cars.

But with money tight in many households, and the cost of gas and insurance soaring, some youngsters are having to choose between buying a car and owning the latest smartphone or tablet.

In a survey to be published later this year by Gartner, 46% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they would choose internet access over owning their own car. The figure was 15% among the baby boom generation that grew up in the 1950s and 60s – seen as the golden age of American motoring.


Nevertheless, Wally Neil’s father Dan, a motoring writer for the Wall Street Journal, is convinced that “American youth have fallen out of love with automobiles” due to the rising cost of motoring and the fact that they are “living their lives online”.

He refuses to get misty-eyed about the “golden age” of teenage driving, however.

“The sadder of the two generations may be the earlier one, who spent their teenage years driving aimlessly around, with the car at the centre of all their mating rituals, struggling to make sense of where they were, clearly associating their status with the kind of car they drive.

“There is a great deal of pathos in America’s love affair with the car and the open road as a symbol of freedom.

“The road isn’t free. There is a fantastic downside of life based around the automobile.”

Ezra Klein – Washington Post: 

Ever since 2007, when oil prices start spiking, Americans as a whole have been driving less. A lot less. But is this just a temporary blip—due mainly to the recession and gas prices that pal around with $4 per gallon signs now and again? Or have driving patterns in the United States undergone some new, permanent shift?

Notice that, in previous recessions, driving barely budged at all. After 2007, by contrast, vehicle-miles traveled took a big nosedive and never recovered. Of course, one difference is that this time around, oil prices are still high. And, despite presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann’s pledge to bring gas below $2 per gallon, most analysts think that strong demand from developing countries will prevent oil prices from plunging back to the rock-bottom levels we saw in the 1990s. It’s possible that U.S. drivers are simply adjusting to this new normal.

There’s also a theory floating around that Americans—especially young Americans—are simply no longer as car crazy as they were in the 1970s. In 1976, three-quarters of all 17-year-olds had drivers’ licenses. By 2008, that was down to 49 percent. Last year, Zipcar, the car-sharing company, did a survey that found that 67 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds would prefer to drive less, especially if alternatives were available. (Mind you, Zipcar is hardly a disinterested party here, but other surveys have yielded similar results.)

The Infrastructurist:

new study(pdf) by Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper looked at driving behavior in several countries, including the United States, and found some compelling evidence that America has reached a “saturation point for vehicle ownership and travel”:

This paper provides some qualitative evidence to support these ideas of saturation. It finds that since 2003, motorized travel demand by all modes has levelled out or even declined in most of the countries studied, and that travel in private vehicles has declined.

We’ve written about this trend before, particularly with regard to a decline in driving among America’s youth. In 1995, people in their twenties accounted for about one-fifth of car mileage in the United States; by 2009 their share had fallen below 14 percent. Technology enables many young professionals to work from anywhere. Meanwhile this demographic’s preferred “anywhere” seems to be the walkable city, according to presentations made at a recent conference of the National Association of Home Builders:

A key finding: They [Generation Y] want to walk everywhere. Surveys show that 13% carpool to work, while 7% walk, said Melina Duggal, a principal with Orlando-based real estate adviser RCLCO. A whopping 88% want to be in an urban setting, but since cities themselves can be so expensive, places with shopping, dining and transit such as Bethesda and Arlington in the Washington suburbs will do just fine.

“One-third are willing to pay for the ability to walk,” Ms. Duggal said. “They don’t want to be in a cookie-cutter type of development. …The suburbs will need to evolve to be attractive to Gen Y.”


14 Responses to “Graph of the Day: Mapping a Post-Auto Economy”

  1. Or perhaps it’s because American made cars are crap these days?!

  2. otter17 Says:

    I am among the Gen Y people that lives close to work and commutes via bicycle.

  3. adelady Says:

    I have 2 children who demonstrate the issues some people face. One rents a house not in, but near the city. She has no car, not even a driver’s license. But she works in the city centre. So, public transport, walking and the occasional taxi in bad weather for her.

    The other has bought a house in outer suburbia. Unfortunately, both she and her partner are in jobs with varying hours, so public transport rarely meets their needs, and little to no scope for relocation because of a limited range of employers for their specialised skills. They have 2 cars for daily commuting.

    Neither ever had any ‘love’ for cars. They’re just means of transport.

  4. … or it could just be the economy. I mean, I am happy to see this trend. But we may have to wait to see if it is more than just a mirage.

  5. Donald Says:

    I love cars, For most of my early teens I only ever drove massive, fuel guzzling V8s such as Fords, Monaros and 350 Toranas … then came the high petrol prices and the original call for people to stop spending so much petrol.

    So I changed to high-powered V6 and that was ok, I loved them too until the next call came for spending less fuel

    So I changed to 4 cylinders … I (gulp) bought a Nissan Bluebird, got sick of that one fairly quick and have since moved on to other 4 cylinder cars.

    And now again … everybody’s saying we should stop driving so much.

    I wonder …. Is it possible to put a V8 on an old pair of roller blades? , where would the petrol tank fit? and how do I get the exhaust out between such tiny little wheels? 😦


    • Martin_Lack Says:

      I can empathise with you there, Donald. My guilty pleasure is watching F1. I have never been to see a Grand Prix but love to watch them on TV. However, I do feel very conflicted in doing so because it is such an obviously unsustainable and elitist sport with far too much money involved. On a personal level, I learnt to drive in a 20 yr-old mini that had to be scrapped soon after I passed my test (cracked floor pan), which meant I started driving my Dad’s car (a 3.5 litre V8 Rover), which was quite a contrast. Also, when living and working in Newman (WA 6753), one of my Australian colleagues was a car and gun fanatic. I think he had a 4.5 litre Dodge Charger (the one in the Steve McQueen film Bullett?) and a complete cupboard-full of guns including a high velocity rifle and a Magnum pistol (and used to go out into the bush at night and shoot animals).

  6. This is highly talented piece of work. This article runs with all useful details in fact.

  7. I used to cruise around back in the late 90’s but didn’t have internet back then. If I had internet access back then I would never leave my house either. Driving doesn’t have the same allure for younger kids as it did for their parents.

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