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
- Online shopping reduces the need to use a car for errands
- Smaller households
- Higher risks associated with impaired driving
- More drivers on the road acting like jerks (road rage)
- Increased congestion
- Autos are not improving as quickly as they once did
- Cars are no longer DIY
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.