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Drivers cut back — a 1st in 26 years
By Paul Overberg and Larry Copeland, USA TODAY

The average American motorist is driving substantially fewer miles for the first time in 26 years because of high gas prices and demographic shifts, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal highway data.

The growth in miles driven has leveled off dramatically in the past 18 months after 25 years of steady climbs despite the addition of more than 1 million drivers to the nation's streets and highways since 2005. Miles driven in February declined 1.9% from February 2006 before rebounding slightly for a 0.3% year-over-year gain in March, data from the Federal Highway Administration show. That's in sharp contrast to the average annual growth rate of 2.7% recorded from 1980 through 2005.

"You have demographic shifts, traffic congestion and increased gas prices," says Ed McMahon, senior research fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit group that promotes innovative development. "For the first time in recent history, the rate of vehicle miles traveled is not increasing at the rate it was for 25 years. It's having an effect and is changing in subtle ways the way people think about their driving."

The nation has not seen such stagnant growth in driving since 1981, when the USA staggered through an oil shortage and a recession. Gas prices reached an all-time high of $3.223 in March 1981 when adjusted for inflation in today's dollars.

During the past 18 months, the nation's population and workforce have grown by just over 1% a year, so an annual gain of 0.3% indicates a decrease in miles per person.

"Thirty-five to 40% of personal miles traveled is work commutes," says Bill Veno, director of global refined products for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a Boston-based energy consulting firm. "If you continue to grow the employment base, that would tend to push (miles driven) upwards."

Americans are driving about 200 million to 300 million fewer miles a day than they would be if the annual growth rate of 1.9% from 2000-2005 had continued.

Factors contributing to the slowdown:

•Soaring gas prices. Seven of 10 Americans are combining trips and taking other steps to reduce driving, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll May 4-6. Don Harrison, 32, of Indianapolis, no longer visits his relatives across town on the weekend; he saves gas by simply calling them.

•Expanded public transportation. More people took public transit last year than at any time in 49 years. "We're seeing suburban locations create new transit systems," says William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "They're expanding into areas that never thought they needed transit because they could do everything by car."

•Slower growth of minority and women drivers and the aging of the population. Except for African-Americans, minority groups drive at high rates, and the annual growth in women drivers has slowed, says Alan Pisarski, an expert on commuting patterns. Also, he says, people on average drive less after age 55.

•Demographic shifts that de-emphasize the need to drive. Many Americans, particularly young, upwardly mobile singles, are moving downtown and revitalizing cities. "(They) don't have to live the way of the Ozzie and Harriet model — two parents, suburban, who drive to the city," McMahon says.
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