The American Car Culture Is Not Dying

Even with gas prices sinking considerably in the past few months, the American driver hasn’t reacted by driving more. Is the American car culture on the wane, or is it just a recession that’s eliminated a big chunk of our need to drive? Nate Silver at Esquire tries sorting it out, proposing that Americans are shifting to a car-free life style.

His evidence: Between October 2004 when gas prices went over $2 a gallon and December 2008 when they fell below $2 a gallon, home prices were up most in Portland and Seattle, two places that “are more friendly to alternate modes of transportation,” as he puts it. The places where home prices are down the most–Las Vegas, Detroit and Phoenix–are much more car dependent.

Silver also argues that the exceptionally sluggish car sales numbers indicate that “Americans are considering making more-permanent adjustments to their lifestyles.”

This reasoning seems very flimsy at best to us. If there’s a correlation between the drop in miles traveled by Americans and the decline in housing prices it has a lot more to do with the depression than a permanant shift in our driving behaviour.

In his piece, Silver concedes that “The unemployment rate has soared significantly since last summer; perhaps the only good thing about losing your job is that you no longer have to endure the drive to work.” He partially dismisses this notion because a regression he ran to test his theory shows that people should still drive more even with unemployment factored in. Instead of fitting into his regression, which predicted miles driven should rise, drivers drove less. 

While he made his reputation as a numbers guy (and we don’t even have a reputation) we still don’t think this proves much.

Earlier this week, Kevin Book at ClearView Energy sent out a note on consumer energy tendencies. In it he says that people really started driving less at the end of 2007, which is right when the economy headed south, as seen in the chart below.

Therefore, the car culture, in our opinion is not dead. It is just waiting until the economy recovers.


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