July 4th arrives amid shift in driving habits

The nation heads into the Independence Day holiday weekend amid the longest and steepest decline in driving since the invention of the automobile.

Since the number of miles traveled by motor vehicles in the USA peaked in November 2007, the nation's 12-month total has dropped by 123 billion miles, or slightly more than 4%. That's a bigger decline than the drop of just above 3% during the 1979-80 Iranian revolution that triggered a spike in gasoline prices in the USA.

The 4% drop is the equivalent of taking between 8 million and 10 million drivers off the road.

"We may be witnessing the beginning of a fundamental shift in American driving habits," says Ed McMahon, senior research fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit group that promotes innovative development.

The Federal Highway Administration's miles-traveled report for April, the most recent available, suggests a slight flattening out. While April's total was up 0.6% from April 2008, continuing rises in joblessness and gas prices are likely to limit driving, McMahon says.

As the USA prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July, many Americans are choosing to watch fireworks close to home. AAA projects that the number of people taking a trip of 50 miles or more this holiday weekend will drop 1.9% from a year ago. The leisure travel organization attributes the projected decline to uncertainty about the economy, "especially rising joblessness and sagging personal incomes." The recent spike in gas prices also might be a concern, AAA says.

Gas prices were the driving force behind the nation's change in driving habits, says analyst Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. "When people saw $3 a gallon, when they saw $4 a gallon, it was something akin to sticker shock. It really did have an effect on people's behavior." He says people started taking transit, carpooling, merging trips and cutting back on vacation travel. Many stayed with alternative modes of transportation even after gas prices retreated last year.

Bernard Assaf, 36, a software engineer from a northern Atlanta suburb, says he won't get back in his car for the 40-mile round trip to work even if gas prices plummet. With help from The Clean Air Campaign, an Atlanta non-profit that promotes transportation alternatives, he now carpools to a satellite parking lot 7 miles from home, then takes public transit to his office. "For me, it's not just about the price of gas," he says. "If I put 40 miles a day on my car vs. 14 miles, that's a big difference. I've gotten too used to doing things besides gripping the steering wheel to go back."

Pisarski and McMahon say the drop in miles traveled has had a greater impact on people living in far-flung suburbs, which were hardest hit by both the housing collapse and high gas prices, and those in rural communities.

John Crabtree, spokesman for the Center for Rural Affairs, a non-profit rural advocacy and economic development group based in Lyons, Neb., says it's "a double-edged sword" for many rural communities.

More people are shopping close to home, giving local merchants a boost. "But if you or your child need to go the doctor, and you live 40 miles form the nearest health care provider, it makes a difference whether gas is $2 a gallon or $3 a gallon," Crabtree says. "People are forced to make difficult choices."

The driving drop-off also signals a reversal in auto ownership among African Americans and Hispanics, which had been increasing since 1970, Pisarski says. "That will limit access to jobs, and will be a factor in the overall economy in getting people back to work," he says.

McMahon says his research shows that people over the past three years are trending toward compact, transit-oriented developments that mix residential, retail and office uses and encourage walking. Even when the economy recovers, he says, people won't resume driving at previous rates.

"We've crossed the Rubicon here in terms of a change," he says.

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