Americans renewed their long-standing love affair with the automobile in 2015, challenging the notion that millennials and baby boomers alike are abandoning their cars for public transit, bikes and car sharing.
Last year, U.S. motorists drove more miles — 3.148 trillion — than any other year in history, according to data released by the Federal Highway Administration in February. About 17 million new cars and trucks were sold in 2015, an increase of nearly 6 percent and a level of car commerce not seen since 2000.
The FHA, which logs miles driven by car, bus and truck drivers, is reluctant to speculate as to why. “We just know there are more cars out there and they’re going farther,” said spokesman Doug Hecox.
It could be historically low gas prices.
“People may be more likely to take a road trip vs. staying at home or flying somewhere,” said Bill Holloway, a transportation policy analyst at the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wis.
Low prices at the pump aren’t the main reason people are buying more cars; that’s likely due to a stronger economy, said Haig Stoddard, senior industry analyst for Wards Auto. Gas prices may have spurred last year’s 13 percent increase in sales of pickups, vans, sport utility vehicles and crossovers, which guzzle more fuel.
The outlook for sales remains strong, in part because so many families delayed new-car purchases during the Great Recession and its stodgy recovery.
A 2014 report released by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group indicates the average number of miles driven by 16- to 34-year-olds dropped by 23 percent from 2001 to 2009. This was due to young people taking fewer trips, shorter trips, and a larger share of trips by modes other than car. The fact that young people delay getting their driver’s license figures, too.
That doesn’t mean millennials are not buying cars. Gen Y-ers now account for more than a quarter of all new-car sales, second only to baby boomers, according to J.D. Power & Associates.
Still, transportation analyst Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives anticipates that people young and old will continue to drive less in coming years due in part to the ubiquity of technology that enables work to be done remotely — mitigating the need to commute by car.