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Driving dilemma: Rates of driving down in the West up in emerging countries

Aug 26, 2011


Over the past few years a number of reports and articles have popped up discussing a trend that would have seemed completely unrealistic only a few years ago – the amount Americans are driving is continuing to decrease. Over at Ezra Klein’s Washington Post blog Brad Plumer points that the rate of driving is significantly off the peak reached in 2007 and questions the common assumption that this reduction will change course once the economy starts growing at a steady pace again.

Noting that driving rates have not dropped nearly as much during previous periods of economic malaise Plumer asks whether this dip is more of a lifestyle change – fewer young Americans are opting to get drivers licenses for example – rather than simply a matter of recession economics. Jared Bernstein from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has recently been wondering the same thing.

A piece this week by Fred Pearce in New Scientist argues that the decline in driving trend is a Western not solely American trend. “Peak car” Pearce claims has hit the Western world noting that Australia France Germany Japan Sweden the US and the UK have all witnessed declines in driving amount since 2004. A number of factors may be contributing to this trend including increased fuel costs rising environmental awareness of the negative economic impacts of auto travel and the proliferation of convenient alternatives to driving (especially in Europe).

From an environmental and climate standpoint this trend is positive. However it risk being trumped by a simultaneous development in emerging countries – explosive growth in the rate of automobile usage and ownership. Despite the decline in driving in the West and vehicle purchases in the US the world’s car population just passed one billion for the first time largely driven by demand in China India and Brazil according to Think Progress.

There are some good Western models for these emerging countries to follow that allow for automobiles to be integrated into a country’s transportation network while also maintaining a strong focus on other modes of transportation including trains subways trams buses bicycling and walking. Let’s hope those are the models these large and growing countries are hoping to emulate.

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