Are We Over Driving?

Minnesotans don’t get around like they used to. But why?

For a week starting March 9, as the snow melts and carmakers roll out the latest, greatest things on four wheels, Twin Citians will swarm the Auto Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center, as they have for 40 years now. They’ll kick the tires of the new Porsche 911, the new Audi A5, and the new amped-up Beetle Fender (the first non-emasculating new Beetle), and they’ll daydream about driving. And then they’ll go home and not drive. Because driving, in case you’ve been stuck in traffic for a while, is officially anachronistic. Cars are the new horse. After decades of driving more and more, farther and farther, we’ve peaked. Or, technically speaking, our VMT (vehicle miles travelled) has peaked. And now, all across America, it’s in decline. Twin Citians haven’t driven so little since 1998. The slackening doesn’t appear to be recession-related, as it began in Minnesota in late 2004 and has continued despite the recovery. It appears instead to be generational: if baby boomers wanted to go everywhere fast, their kids want to go nowhere slowly. Sure, many young people aren’t commuting because they don’t have jobs—the unemployment rate for young adults remains 30-percent higher than average—but they also just aren’t interested. From 2001 to 2009, the average VMT of 16- to 34-year-olds dropped 23 percent, and the number of people under 50 who don’t even have a driver’s license has skyrocketed. Last year, for the first time, the Minnesota Department of Transportation incorporated not just roads but all forms of transportation—transit, biking, walking—in its new 20-year plan, an acknowledgment that we can’t afford to maintain more roads even if we wanted to. Make no mistake: we do want cars. Sales are up. We’d just prefer something like the Fisker Karma, certain to be a hit at the Auto Show, which looks like a Corvette but is the first electric luxury car. On pure electricity, it can cover 50 miles—as if you’ll be going that far.

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