Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings, said that today "we are witnessing the largest sustained drop in driving ever seen."
"For years and years the dominant trend in driving, was yearly increases. Americans drove more and more and more. And drove further and further," Puentes said. "These drops in driving are historic. It is certainly related to the economic downturn, but we do think these are part of larger, most systemic changes in how Americans travel."
Mass transit ridership is up and some families are trading in the house in the suburbs and returning to city centers that were abandoned for decades. For years there was the mentality of "drive out until you qualify" when choosing housing. Today, location – not square footage -- is starting to tip the scales back.
"It's not that Americans haven't stopped travel, but many of them have changed how they are traveling," Puentes said. "When gas hit $4 a gallon last summer, Americans started to pay attention to the role that transportation costs play in their household budgets."
One example of this can be found in Naperville, Ill., a suburb 35 miles west of Chicago. There a private developer is planning to build a condominium-style parking garage for commuters who can't get a parking spot in the neighboring train station lot. Commuters would buy a parking spot for about $9,000 and then pay taxes and fees for maintenance and snow removal just like they would on a house.
The station is on the busiest line of the commuter rail to Chicago, with about 5,800 passengers a day boarding there. Municipal parking lots at the station have thousands of spots but not enough to meet demand. The waiting list for spots currently runs five years.
Daniel G. Chatman, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said there are very few places in the country where there is actually a speed advantage to transit. But people will choose it because of cost, stress or environmental reasons.
"As traffic conditions get worse for people, the more likely they are to explore other options," Chatman said.
In the past few years things like more comfortable cars, cell phones and iPods have made long drives more bearable. But Chatman said what really drives people to commute so far are higher-paying jobs.
"That's why they are willing to drive as far," he said.
And for now, those jobs are scarce.