Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What Has Diminished the Utility of Driving?

Car ownership and usage has likely peaked in Western cities.  On a per person and per household basis miles driven are declined year over year, and this is not explained by a single factor. Most researchers examining these trends have focused on factors that increase the utility of non-auto modes such as transit to explain the decline in driving. Other researchers make shakier claims that smartphones are the culprit. But rather than looking at an increase in the utility of competing modes perhaps the proper way to view the decline in driving is that driving—and more importantly auto ownership—is not as valuable as it used to be. The utility of driving has diminished. Reasons for this include:

  •        Increased costs of auto ownership and usage
Cars and driving are simply more expensive than they used to be while wages have been stagnant for a broad swath of the workforce.

  •        Online shopping reduces the need to use a car for errands
Many trips once made by car are now made by truck. More importantly, online shopping makes it easier to live without a car making cars less valuable.
  •        Smaller households
Fewer people in each household reduce the amount of shuttling around.
  •        Higher risks associated with impaired driving
The risks and costs associated with impaired driving have increased substantially over the past 30 years. Driving to meet friends at a bar often means you have to figure out how to get your car home at the end of the night.
  •        More drivers on the road acting like jerks (road rage)
There have always been jerks on the road. But with more people on the road there are simply more jerks. A breakdown of social norms makes driving less fun. Here is a recent poll that finds that "The number of people who admit they feel “uncontrollable anger toward another driver” has doubled since 2005."
  •        Increased congestion
It simply takes longer to get places. Many errands and other tasks that used to be bundled as part of a journey are forgone.
  •        Autos are not improving as quickly as they once did
The marginal improvements in new cars are not enough to get people excited year after year. The difference between a 1970 model and 1980 model was great due to major technological shifts in the early 1970s. Overall cars improved rapidly year over year for decades. Yet now the new features on cars aren't as great as air bags, air conditioning, power windows, etc.
  • Cars are no longer DIY
As people keep their cars longer, any excitement about "new" things diminishes. In addition, cars are no longer something you buy and work on yourself so fewer people feel a connection to their machines. Cars are just something you drop off at the dealer every now and again for service.

What is not a likely explanation for the decline in driving and auto ownership are land use effects and the built environment. The reason that these are unlikely explanations is that driving apparently peaked at a time when there is no mass migration to new types of communities, and the trend toward less driving is a global phenomenon. Whatever the cause, the utility of driving has diminished within existing communities. The utility may have diminished in either absolute or relative terms.

A decline in the utility of driving helps explain why we aren’t seeing the reduction in miles (km) traveled show up elsewhere. The trips not taken have not been replaced. They are mostly just forgone. While it is true that transit trips have increased while driving has declined, the increase in transit usage doesn’t come close to matching the reduction in auto travel. 

So it may just be that driving is not as valuable as it used to be, and that policy decisions have not played a large role in this behavioral shift. A variety of substitution effects, economic effects and behavioral effects may have contributed to lower utility from driving. 

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