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Driving has dropped among Americans, especially the young. That much everyone can agree on.
But the question that has preoccupied researchers is why. Is driving down just because of the economic downturn? Or are Americans - particularly teens and twentysomethings - changing their habits in ways that will last beyond a tough economy?
A new analysis from the CALPIRG Education Fund, a nonprofit focused on good government, argues that the change is not just economic.
"The recession does not appear to be the prime cause of the falloff in driving over the past eight years," it concluded.
Since the recession, Americans are driving fewer miles, on average, in all but a handful of states. The average Californian, for instance, cut his or her annual miles driven by 6.6% between 2005 and 2011, the report found.
When people don’t have jobs, they tend to drive a lot less. But the states with the biggest drops in driving don’t all have the biggest increases in unemployment, the analysis found.
Out of the 10 states where driving fell most, only two rank in the top for increases in joblessness, the report found.
Driving was already waning before the recession and continued to fall afterward, the CALPIRG analysis noted. Other possible explanations - such as more people telecommuting - don’t correlate neatly to the falloff in driving either.
"The economy will always matter" to how much Americans drive, said Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst for the CALPIRG Education Fund. "But this is about more than just the ups and downs of the recession."
Other researchers have concluded that economic trouble is the strongest explanation for the recent drop in driving. A study last year by the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies supported that conclusion.
Young people do drive less than young people did in earlier generations, even when comparing people with similar traits, the study found. However, it concluded that economic factors such as unemployment and household income made a much bigger difference.
Baxandall argued that those results did not contradict the new study, because both found that while the economy was a major factor, it was not the only force behind the driving decline, particularly among younger drivers. UCLA researchers could not be reached immediately for comment after the new study was released Thursday.
The two studies had some important differences: The UCLA researchers zeroed in on households, trying to tease out the different things that shaped their driving habits, rather than comparing the trends from state to state, as the CALPIRG analysis did.
In addition, CALPIRG checked each possible explanation against the driving declines one by one, while UCLA tried to account for the effects of multiple factors at the same time.
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