WASHINGTON — Driving in America has stalled, leading researchers to ask: Is the national love affair with the automobile over?
After rising for decades, total US vehicle use — the collective miles people drive — peaked in August 2007. It then dropped sharply during the Great Recession and has largely been at a plateau since, even though the economy is recovering and the population growing. Just this week, the Federal Highway Administration reported vehicle miles traveled during the first half of 2013 were down slightly, continuing the trend.
Even more telling, the average number of miles drivers individually rack up peaked in July 2004 at just over 900 per month, according to a study by Transportation Department economists Don Pickrell and David Pace. By July of last year, that had fallen to 820 miles per month, down about 9 percent. Per capita automobile use is now back at the same levels as in the late 1990s.
Until the mid-1990s, driving levels largely tracked economic growth, according to Pickrell and Pace, who said their conclusions are their own and not the government’s. Since then, the economy has grown more rapidly than auto use. Gross domestic product declined for a while during the recession but reversed course in 2009. Auto use has yet to recover.
Meanwhile, the share of people in their teens, 20s and 30s with driver’s licenses has been dropping significantly, suggesting that getting a driver’s license is no longer the teenage rite of passage it once was.
‘The idea that the car means freedom, I think, is over.’ —Nancy McGuckin, a travel behavior analyst
Researchers are divided on the reasons behind the trends. One camp says the changes are almost entirely linked to the economy. In a few years, as the economy continues to recover, driving will probably bounce back, they reason. At the same time, they acknowledge there could be long-term structural changes in the economy that would prevent a return to the levels of driving growth seen in the past; it is just too soon to know.
The other camp acknowledges that economic factors are important but says the decline in driving also reflects fundamental changes in the way Americans view the automobile. For commuters stuck in traffic, getting into a car no longer correlates with fun. It i’s also becoming more of a headache to own a car in central cities and downright difficult to park.
‘‘The idea that the car means freedom, I think, is over,’’ said travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin.
Gone are the days of the car culture as immortalized in songs like ‘‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’’ ‘’Little Deuce Coupe’’ and ‘‘Pink Cadillac.’’
‘‘The car as a fetish of masculinity is probably over for certain age groups,’’ McGuckin said. ‘‘I don’t think young men care as much about the car they drive as they use to.’’
That is partly because cars have morphed into computers on wheels that few people dare tinker with, she said. ‘‘You can’t open the hood and get to know it the way you used to,’’ she said.
Lifestyles are also changing. People are doing more of their shopping online. More people are taking public transit than ever before. And biking and walking to work and for recreation are on the rise.
Demographic changes are also a factor. The peak driving years for most people are between ages 45 and 55 when they are the height of their careers and have more money to spend, said transportation analyst Alan Pisarski, author of ‘‘Commuting in America.” The the last of the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are leaving peak driving years.
Economists say many Americans, especially teens and young adults, find buying and owning a car stretches their financial resources. The average price of a new car is $31,000, according to the industry-aligned Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
‘‘We’re not selling to everyone. We’re selling to upper-middle class to upper class,’’ said Sean McAlinden, the center’s chief economist. The rest of the public, he said, buys used cars or takes the bus.