Remember "Peak Car"? Vehicle miles traveled per capita hit an all-time high of just over 10,000 a year in 2004 - then declined for nine straight years, spawning a belief that the car-happy United States might have finally maxed out on driving. Baby boomers were retiring, millennials liked walkable cities, and more workers telecommuted. Futurists touted lower emissions of carbon dioxide and less valuable time wasted in traffic.
Well, as anyone who rode the interstates this summer can attest, cars are back. Vehicle miles traveled per capita rose in 2014, 2015 and in the first half of 2016, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Cheap gas is one reason: A gallon of regular cost an average of$2.24 during the week ending Aug. 29 - about the same, in inflation-adjusted terms, as in 2004. A bigger factor, though, is the slow, steady economic recovery. As Eric Sundquist and Chris McCahill of the University of Wisconsin's State Smart Transportation Initiative have shown, driving correlates even more strongly with gross domestic product growth than with gas prices.