The Decline in U.S. Driving May Not Recover Completely

The slowdown in driving has been coming since the early 2000s.

October 06, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. saw an unprecedented drop in driving. Vehicle miles traveled were down 41% from February to April on a seasonally adjusted basis, and by July, vehicle miles were still down 13% (seasonally adjusted) from February, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Driving will surely return close to its pre-pandemic level as Americans go back to their offices this year and next, reports Bloomberg, but a study by accounting and consulting firm KPMG predicts that vehicle miles traveled will settle at about 90% of pre-2020 levels in coming years. On a per capita basis, they were down 5% from their record high in the mid-2000s even before the pandemic.

The reasons for this decline come from multiple factors. More employees have been working from home, ordering online and downloading entertainment. While the goods people purchase online are delivered in vehicles, those services rack up fewer miles traveled than if everybody shopped in person. These trends began with the arrival of widespread broadband internet access in the early 2000s and were gaining strength when the pandemic accelerated them.

This is not the end of cars because most American adults will still need them. Car-dependent suburbs have been growing faster than cities since 2016. Still, suburban residents won’t need as many cars, and they won’t need to replace them as often. Here are some other pandemic-related facts about changing in driving:

·         Working from home: In September, 22.7% of employed Americans were working from home because of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among those in management and professional occupations, the figure was 40.5%.

·         Fewer shopping excursions: Electronic commerce and mail orders accounted for 14.2% of U.S. retail sales in July, according to the Census Bureau, up from 11.7% in February and 3.3% in early 2000.

·         Driving based on political preferences: Vehicle miles traveled in July were down 14.1% from a year earlier in heavily Democratic states and 7.6% in heavily Republican states, according to transportation researcher Michael Sivak.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.

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