Americans Are Driving Less Than Before Pandemic, and It’s Permanent

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The early days of the Covid pandemic brought an unprecedented decline in driving in the U.S., with vehicle miles traveled down 41% from February to April on a seasonally adjusted basis. By July, the most recent month for which the Federal Highway Administration has released data, vehicle miles were still down 13% (seasonally adjusted) from February.

Driving will surely creep closer to its pre-pandemic level as Americans return to their offices this year and next. But it may never quite get there. A study this summer by accounting and consulting firm KPMG forecast that vehicle miles traveled will settle at about 90% of pre-2020 levels in coming years. On a per capita basis, they were down 5% from their all-time high in the mid-2000s even before the pandemic. Driving in the U.S. would seem to have peaked.

The reasons for this decline are straightforward. More and more people have been doing their jobs from home—and getting their entertainment and buying things there as well. (Yes, the goods people buy online are delivered in vehicles, but on balance this still results in fewer miles traveled than if everybody shopped in person.) These trends, which began with the arrival of widespread broadband internet access in the early 2000s, had been gaining strength in recent years. The pandemic has accelerated them.

This doesn’t mean the end of cars; the vast majority of American adults will still need them. Car-dependent suburbs have been growing faster than cities since 2016, and the pandemic certainly hasn’t slowed that trend. But they won’t need as many, and they won’t need to replace them as often.

Remote Access

In September, 22.7% of employed Americans reported working from home because of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among those in management and professional occupations, the figure was 40.5%.

Drive Time

Americans working at home were saving 60 million commuter hours a day, according to a University of Chicago study.

Fewer Trips to the Mall

Electronic commerce and mail orders accounted for 14.2% of U.S. retail sales in July, according to the Census Bureau, up from 11.7% in February and 3.3% in early 2000.

Party Lines

Vehicle miles traveled in July were down 14.1% from a year earlier in heavily Democratic states, and 7.6% in heavily Republican ones, according to transportation researcher Michael Sivak.
 
Fox is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
 
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