A report released in May by U.S. Prig Education Fund starts off with an ominous statement: “The Driving Boom is over.” Titled “A New Direction — Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” the report sets out the reasons for the demise of the boom, ruminates on what might come next, and considers the implications of the changing trends.
Americans drive fewer miles in total today than they did eight years ago, bringing to an end 60 years of steady increases the report finds. The number of public-transportation trips, however, increased during roughly the same period, growing by 10 percent between 2005 and 2011. On a per-capita basis, you have to go back to 1996 to find a time when motorists did less driving.
The cause for this change in driving habits is credited in large part to the millennials — defined in this report as those born between 1983 and 2000 and who now form the largest demographic in the United States. On average, people between the ages of 16 and 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001. Add to this the fact that the percentage of young people with a driver’s license has been on the decline for years. Having peaked in 1983 at around 84 percent, the percentage of licensed 16 to 24 year olds eroded to 67 percent by 2011. Those between the ages of 16 and 34 have taken to public transportation in droves increasing their per-capita passenger-miles traveled by 40 percent between 2001 and 2009.
The Los Angeles Times (March 15, 2013) adds another cause for concern. It reports that drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 accounted for 2 percent of new-car sales in 2012, down from 3.4 percent in 1985.
None of these trends works in favor of professional car washing. What the industry needs are more new cars, more licensed drivers, and more vehicle-miles traveled (VMT). Millennials seem intent on bringing about the exact opposite. Bear in mind that this slice of society will be a major pool of potential car wash customers for the next, oh say, 40 to 50 years.
The Times article, titled “Who needs a car? Smartphones are driving teens’ social lives,” provides a glimpse into the younger generation’s driving attitudes. It quotes a Zipcar survey that found nearly 75 percent of millennials would rather shop online than in stores and that 65 percent would do without their car rather than lose their smartphone or computer.
The U.S. Prig report does not presume to make predictions about the future. Instead it offers three scenarios to illustrate a range of plausible outcomes. In the first, “Back to the Future,” there is a return to overall VMT growth (by 24 percent by 2040) but at a slower rate than in the past. In the second, “Enduring Shift,” VMT remains at today’s level through 2020 then increases by 7 percent by 2040. Finally, in “Ongoing Decline,” VMT declines through 2020, hitting bottom 19 percent below the 2007 level, and then stagnates through 2040.
Regardless of which scenario comes to pass, it’s evident that the driving boom is indeed over. While the report points to several benefits resulting from its end — less congestion, less pollution, less dependence on oil, and longer-lasting and cheaper-to-maintain roads — there is little to enthuse an operator looking to run higher numbers through the wash tunnel.