If Not a Love Affair With Our Cars, A Very Time-Consuming Marriage

Road-weary Americans feel as if they live in their cars. It’s not quite true, according to a new report from the Department of Transportation that analyzes travel data for 2001. “Personal vehicles” (cars, vans, SUVs, pickup trucks, etc.) covered 2.3 trillion miles that year, with adults averaging four trips per day. And while the traffic may have made all this driving seem endless, adults spent an average of 55 minutes per day in vehicles—67 minutes for men and 44 minutes for women. People in the 25-54 age range spent more time in their cars (64 minutes) than teens (25 minutes), 20-24s (52 minutes), 55-64s (58 minutes) or those 65-plus (39 minutes). People who are employed spent far more time in their cars than those who aren’t (65 minutes vs. 35 minutes). While social scientists say Americans are bowling alone, they seem not to be driving alone. The mean number of occupants per vehicle mile was 1.63. The figure was higher for social/recreational trips (2.02) and lower for drives to work (1.14). The occupancy rate was also higher on weekends (2.00) than on weekdays (1.50).

Driving accounts for 87 percent of daily trips. What’s the point of all this motion? Contrary to what one might suppose, commuting does not account for the bulk of it. Rather, the largest share of trips (44.6 percent) is devoted to family and personal business, including shopping and errands. Social/recreational purposes take up another 27.1 percent. Getting to work accounts for 14.8 percent. These figures help explain why the distribution of trips throughout the day is not concentrated at morning and evening rush hours. The report notes that “more daily trips are taken between noon and 1 p.m. (7.4 percent) than between 8 and 9 a.m. (5.5 percent).” Those of you irked by the proverbial “Sunday driver” may take solace in learning that Sunday has a lower share of all daily trips (12.9 percent) than does any other day of the week. Friday has the largest share (15.6 percent).

The study also takes a look at personal-vehicle ownership in the U.S., finding that just 8 percent of households didn’t have wheels in 2001. Even in urban areas, just 9 percent are what the DOT refers to (with sadness, one senses) as “zero-vehicle households.” Single-person households are much more likely than multi-person households to lack a personal vehicle (18.7 percent vs. 4.1 percent). For the first time, says the report, the number of personal vehicles available to the average household (1.9) exceeds the number of drivers in that household (1.8).