Cars -- who needs 'em? (Photo by André-Pierre Bodson.)

Cross-posted from Sightline Daily.

In a story about the decline of youth car culture, The New York Times quotes an advertising exec on the feelings of today’s youth toward the auto:

“They think of a car as a giant bummer,” said Mr. Martin. “Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”

True dat. I’m not young anymore, but looking at my gas gauge is one of the biggest downers of my day. Though as I’ve argued before, a big part of waning interest in cars among young people stems from economics rather than cultural shifts: Gas and cars are expensive, youth unemployment is high, and young peoples’ wages are down. And besides, new licensing laws have made it more difficult and costly for many teens to get a license, while making driving a lot less appealing. (When I was 16, the lure of cruising around with friends was a major impetus for getting my license — but today licensing laws in many parts of the country forbid teens with new licenses to drive with a bunch of friends.)

Regardless of the reasons, the latest figures show that driving is continuing to decline — not simply among young people, but across the board.

  • Year-end federal figures show that total miles logged on U.S. roads fell by a little over a percent last year [PDF]. Adjusting for population growth, that’s a decline of nearly 2 percent per person. Which isn’t a lot, but every little bit adds up. In fact, total vehicle travel in the U.S. was lower in 2011 than it was in 2004.
  • The declines in the Northwest — particularly Oregon — began earlier than the national trends, and have cut more deeply into car travel.  By 2010, Oregonians had cut their total vehicle travel to roughly 1998 levels. And measured per person, vehicle travel was at its lowest level since 1986.

I could go on (and on).  But suffice it to say that the data now leave no room for doubt: For all sorts of reasons, people have less appetite for car travel than they did just a few years back. A look at the demographics suggests that these trends could well continue, even as the economy recovers. Baby boomers are aging past their peak driving years, and are being replaced by the much smaller baby bust generation. Gas prices are showing no sign of a sustained drop. And meanwhile, young people just aren’t taking to the roads the way they used to.

It makes me wonder … why is it again that we’re planning to spend so many billions of dollars on big new roads?