Plenty of free seats.

Photographer: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Americans Are Just Staying Home More

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
Read More.
a | A

Despite a big increase in total miles traveled over the past two years, Americans are still driving markedly less per capita than they were a decade ago.

Not Driving So Much
U.S. vehicle miles traveled per person,* trailing 12 months
 
Sources: Federal Highway Administration, Bureau of Labor Statistics
* Civilian noninstitutional population 16 and older

I wrote about this Tuesday -- and published the above chart, with a slightly different headline. That got me curious as to what a similar per-capita accounting would look like for public transportation. If people aren't driving more, is it because they're sitting on a subway or a bus? Doesn't look like it:

Not Taking the Bus, Either
Unlinked public transportation passenger trips* per capita
 
Sources: American Public Transportation Association, Bureau of Economic Analysis
*Each boarding of a bus, subway etc. is counted as a trip.

It's a different trajectory, but with pretty much the same bottom line over the past decade: We're taking fewer rides per person on buses, trains and such now than we were then. And while we appear to be walking and biking a bit more than we used to, I can't imagine that's enough to make up for the per-capita decline in driving and public transit usage. We're also flying slightly more (from a previous peak of 2.777 flights per capita in 2007, by my calculation, to 2.785 in 2015), but that's not everyday transportation used to get to jobs, go shopping, etc.

In short, Americans appear to have become less mobile. That's got to be partly because we're getting older. Those 55 and older drive a lot fewer miles than younger folks; presumably the same applies to other modes of transportation.

What else could it be? One gloomy explanation is that we're stuck in a long economic malaise in which we have fewer places to go to and less money to get us there. A more intriguing possibility is that as more economic activity goes virtual, we don't need to get around as much anymore. As I wrote a year ago, in an attempt to explain the slowdown in global trade:

The defining consumer product of our age is the smartphone. A smartphone is a good, and it takes resources to make and transport it. Still, it takes a lot less resources than, say, a car. Most of its value is in the software that is loaded onto it and the people, information and entertainment you can connect to with it. That's a different sort of value creation than 20th-century resource-based value creation. If that's the direction the global economy is headed in, the connections between growth, trade and resource consumption aren't going to be the same as they have been.

Perhaps the connections between growth and vehicle miles traveled aren't the same as they have been, either. This might be hard to see in the short term: As my Bloomberg View colleague Mark Whitehouse pointed out earlier this month, auto sales have been one of the main drivers of U.S. economic growth in recent months. But it does seem like something we ought to be looking out for.

  1. A note on data: For the first chart I used the monthly 16-and-older population estimates that the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes as part of its employment-to-population ratio calculations, for the second I used the quarterly population estimates that the Bureau of Economic Analysis uses in calculating per-capita income. And the first chart uses annualized mileage, while the second goes by trips per quarter. So they're not perfectly comparable, but these were the numbers I had -- and it didn't seem worth the extra data-massaging effort to make them more comparable, given that the trajectories wouldn't be affected much.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net