Car Culture at Dead Man’s Curve. Have We Reached Peak Pick-Up?

July 31, 2013


Univ. of Michigan researcher Michael Sivak has been producing a steady stream of reports hailing the onset of peak car, the high point of American car ownership. Tuesday he released a few more charts hammering home the point and a study showing even pick up truck popularity is on the decline since a peak around 2006.

Peak car happened somewhere around 2004—maybe as late as 2008 depending on how you measure it. (See charts above and below.)

Either way, the conclusion Sivak suggests is a cultural shift away from car culture. “These reductions likely reflect, in part, noneconomic changes in society that influence the need for vehicles (e.g., increased telecommuting, increased use of public transportation, increased urbanization of the population, and changes in the age composition of drivers),” he writes.

Sivak’s paper, “Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked? Part 2,” posted to the Univ. of Michigan website Tuesday shows how the peak car phenomenon applies to light-duty vehicles as well. That classification includes small commercial trucks, vans, SUVs and pickups, exactly the auto segments you might expect to be resistant to cultural shifts against driving. The people who rely on them need vehicles for work or are more likely to live in rural or suburban areas where giving up a car in favor of transit is less feasible. But nonetheless, peak pickup has also come, he argues.

The peak for miles driven of light-duty vehicles was 2006, 2.77 trillion miles. In 2011, it was 2.65 trillion, a decrease of 5 percent. Similar trends apply to vehicle ownership. “We now have fewer light-duty vehicles and we drive each of them less than a decade ago,” he writes.

Is America’s love affair with the car over?

Or just less torrid?

Some key indicators – such as vehicle use, driver’s license registration, and public-transit ridership – suggest that the 100-year-old Auto Age is waning.

Economics, urbanization, technology, and environmental concerns are changing the way Americans travel, and young people are leading the shift, transportation experts say.

Young people are getting driver’s licenses later or not at all. They take the train or bus or bike to work, or telecommute. If they need a car, they can rent one by the hour.

“It’s so much easier to get around the city without a car,” said Jim Krider, 21, of Havertown. A junior at Temple, he didn’t get his license until he was 20 and doesn’t own a car.

“You don’t have to pay for gas or insurance or the car,” he said.

“I really never had a real need for it,” said Marysia Pomorski, 24, a social worker from Haddonfield, who also waited until she was 20 to get a driver’s license. When she attended Oberlin College in Ohio, she said, she “biked everywhere” and didn’t miss having a car or a license.

Many of her classmates from urban areas were also without licenses, while students from the Midwest “were always very surprised that I didn’t have it, because they wouldn’t have had a choice,” she said.

Although some decline in vehicle use and ownership may be a result of the recession that began in 2008, several important indicators began to decline earlier and may not be reversed by an improving economy.

The declines before 2008 “make me believe something else is going on,” said Michael Sivak, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “Some of the trends are likely to be permanent.”

In a recent paper, “Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?,” Sivak noted that vehicles per person, per driver, and per household all peaked in 2006, before the recession began.

Sivak suggested four key factors in the shift from cars:

Economics: It’s more difficult to afford the costs of buying, insuring, and maintaining a car.

The Internet: People can interact, shop, and be entertained without driving somewhere.

Urbanization: Young people and empty nesters are moving to cities where they don’t have to own a car.

The environment: Young people are more environmentally conscious than their elders, interested in burning less gasoline.

Earth Policy Institute:

Three trends underlie falling U.S. gasoline use: a shrinking car fleet, an overall reduction in driving, and improved fuel efficiency. The number of registered vehicles in the United States rose rather steadily from 1945 to 2008, when it topped out at close to 250 million and then abruptly changed course. As the economic recession hit, new car sales in the United States fell from more than 16 million in 2007 to below 11 million in 2009. For two years, scrappage exceeded new purchases, causing a contraction in the overall size of the fleet. Even with a rebound in sales to nearly 15 million vehicles in 2012, the days of annual sales exceeding 17 million—as seen through the early 2000s—are likely over

10 Responses to “Car Culture at Dead Man’s Curve. Have We Reached Peak Pick-Up?”

  1. Alan Olson Says:

    Are you blind? 3.50/gal gas is the reason people don’t drive as much. Really. If we had 2.00/gal gas the roads would be saturated with traffic. Really.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      3.50 gas is exactly why many people don’t drive.
      and if you’re going to get your gas from tar sands, deep ocean or arctic drilling, that’s what it’s going to cost.
      3.50 and up.
      There are other forces, but that’s the main one, and its not going away.

      • It no Duh and your statement as the main one don’t hold water (in this case gas). I think it is a factor but a smaller one. It doesn’t fit with the facts that well (above). Look at the Median household income graph, Gas prices graph, and the chart above.

        Median household income is a much bigger factor. Factor in the Total price of the car amortization, insurance, tags, and maintenance for a $20,000 to $25,000 car that somewhere between $500 to $700 a month. If they drive 100 miles per week and only got 15 mpg that only $106. If you’re looking at the change in gas prices $1.50 to 4.00 then that is an increase of only $40 a month which make it only 1/10th of the monthly cost of owning a car.
        The median income dropped $4,000 dollars in the five year period. Which fits the data better and is the main factor. Gas is only a fraction of the overall cost.

        Also to you did not read your article above. He gave four key factors in the shift from cars.
        “Economics: It’s more difficult to afford the costs of buying, insuring, and maintaining a car.” was number one. Not the change is gas prices. I sorry but you are wrong.

      • petermogensen Says:

        Just for the record.

        The gas price in Denmark is right now ~12 kroner/liter which is about 8.2 dollar/gallon.

  2. andrewfez Says:

    Watched a TED talk years ago, with a city planner/engineer focused on designing walkable neighborhoods and public transport centered around multiunit housing (Euro-style).

    Been working in S Pasadena, CA this week. On lunch, i sit in my car and watch folks bicycling everywhere. They don’t seem to stop at the stop signs though. And they don’t seem to have any fear of cars, cycling around all crazy…

    Speeking of CA, the city of Lancaster past some rule that says new residential construction must be equipped with solar pannels. Lancaster is freak’n hot in the summer. Probably the cost of the A/C bills is enough to go solar.

  3. Jean Mcmahon Says:

    Car worship…THE religion of the USA

  4. daryan12 Says:

    And just when Americans are having to give up their cars by high oil prices what do the Republicans propose to do but cut funding to Amtrak and bankrupt the railways….

  5. Bruce Miller Says:

    “The Transition” and the new Chinese Thorium LFTR styled 99% efficient reactors with little waste . . . will change the urban face of the cities of the world. ‎Kun Chen from Chinese Academy of Sciences on China Thorium – and understand areogels and other superinsulations well hidden form the commonalities.
    Understand that America has lost the strategy defined below:
    “It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America… In that context, how America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical… the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.”
    – Zbigniew Brezinski, The Grand Chessboard
    Understand that relative to the American intelligentsia, the Chinese intelligentsia is magnitudes larger and government sponsored, aims at pure science, not corporate profitability, and seeks truths Americans may never realize.
    America’s schooling system 19th in the world and falling, America’s famous stronghold cities like Detroit, bankrupt many more on the fringe?
    The world famous moon Walk,now but a very expensive footnote in history?
    The absolute demolition of Iraq faded now as China bids higher in stronger Yuan for the oil won by American blood there?
    American Sports Stars – paid more than its scholars, Scientists, Engineers?
    American intelligentsia called derogatory names, nerds, geeks, queers, outcasts, or worse, not valued even for breeding all these years, now superseded by “Asian Imported Brains” in every college and university at very high prices?
    American designed cars laughingstocks of the automotive world?
    American nuclear Establishment’s obsession with 1950’s styled enriched uranium processes now beaten badly by China’s pebble bed gas reactors, Thorium LFTR styled technologies and admittedly the CANDU efforts in Canada years ago? China’s Thorium efforts debut in 2017 – will shame America?

  6. […] been pointing out to anyone that will listen, that for young people in America of my generation, having a car was a key not only to mobility, but […]

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