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Economic Perspective: Are We Driving Less?

NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professor Dr. Mike Walden working in a recording studio.


“Today’s program asks if we’re driving less. Mike, many historians say our modern economy was built around the automobile. Vehicles are used to take to work and school, and much of what we purchase in stores was delivered by trucks. But is the age of the auto beginning to wane?”


“Well this is an interesting question because I think most of us, including me, would have said that 10, 15 years ago, yes, we’re going to continue seeing people driving more. The automobile is going to sort of rule our economic lives, but some recent data suggests there may be some changes. And the data indicates that miles driven during and immediately after the recession actually went down.”

“Now we’ve had a slight rebound since, but we’ve really not had a total recovery. Another piece of data, the average number of trips that the individual household makes has continued to drop since the mid-1990s. So driving seems to be less important in our economic lives today, and now there’s several reasons for that.”

“More people are working from home. We’re doing more of our shopping online so we’re not traveling to retail stores as much. And many young people are delaying getting licenses, and in fact they’re using alternative travel modes. Now all this rings as good for people who are worried about congestion, people who are worried about the environment and pollution, but for planners this is very, very difficult.”

“As we’re looking at a state like North Carolina that’s expected to add 2-3 million people over the next 40 years, what does this mean for how many roads we need to build, and how many roads we need to expand? So this is a challenging point in our history if we are seeing a tipping point in moving away from the age of the automobile.”

Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University who teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.