February 12, 2012

Why have Americans stopped driving?

It's not really a complaint, mind you; if people want to get off the road, it's okay with me. It does raise two questions, however: (1) What the hell's going on?; and (2) Why is it that the lamestream media never so much as mention the phenomenon?

First, the facts. The chart at right was crunched together by Mike Shedlock at his "Mish" econoblog, and graphically describes gasoline usage over three-month periods (Nov-Dec-Jan) over a historical period, which provides some useful context. The same data have been discussed at length by Charles Hugh Smith at his "Of Two Minds" blog. Both arrive at essentially the same conclusion: American gasoline use has fallen off a table in recent months.

If you had no idea this was going on, you shouldn't blame yourself. As HUGE a data point as this represents, it does not fit well into the current, election-year-driven happy talk about the economy, nor does it comport with the massively-falsified labor statistics promulgated each month by the Illusionist-in-Chief herself, Hilda Solis of the Department of Labor. Propaganda sites such as the New York Times do not want to touch this, because it raises disturbing questions such as, how are Americans actually getting to all these new jobs the economy is creating? So if American gasoline usage has fallen over 40% in a very brief period, well, it must have something to do with the (very mild) weather that has plagued the United States of late.

The chart demonstrates that Americans are currently purchasing about 33 million gallons of gasoline per day (the chart, to smooth the data, provides a moving average for three-month totals of daily usage; thus, 110 million divided by 3). At the height of the housing bubble, daily gasoline usage was closer to 56 million gallons per day; thus, current usage is about 58% of the zenith of happy motoring, or at about the same level as ten years ago. This is yet another symbol of our Back to the Future Reality: most economic data points, such as the total number of jobs in the economy, or the inflation-adjusted level of average income, or the inflation-adjusted value of the major American stock markets, all seem to confirm the same picture. Absolutely nothing has happened in the last decade other than a growth in population and a continuing decline in our standard of living.

Why are Americans keeping their 254 million cars and trucks parked? One surmise, I suppose, is that Americans might simply be living in them but lack the bucks to actually operate them. It is not, by the way, a matter of fuel efficiency. Hybrid technology and a move toward more fuel -efficient cars account for about 6% of the decline over the last 10 years. So the data really do point toward a dramatic diminution in actual gasoline used.

The good news is that America probably has brought itself into compliance with the Kyoto Protocols on global warming, bringing to mind the old tri-partite saying about greatness, updated here for environmentalism: Some societies are born environmentalist, some achieve environmentalism, and some have environmentalism thrust upon them. The United States would appear to belong in this third category.

Realistically speaking, the sharp drop in usage must reflect an abandonment of a great deal of discretionary driving. The price of gasoline (and note its extreme inflexibility - where's the old "law of supply and demand?") creeps into the unconscious mind of a cash-strapped society and people just quit driving. I think about the cost of driving now in ways I did not before. Take, for example, a staple experience of my distant youth, the round-trip drive to L.A. One would drive to L.A. instead of flying because it was seen as a practically "free" way to travel. Now those 900 miles, calculated at 30 miles per gallon and $4.00 for each gallon (out here on the Best Coast), set you back 120 big ones. Or, simply a drive into San Francisco for the day. Our local governmental districts do not want to share in the general economic downtrend, and since they hold monopoly power over all the "infrastructure," they have jacked bridge tolls and municipal parking to the moon and beyond. It costs six bucks to cross the Golden Gate Bridge (discussions are underway to raise it to probably ten bucks) and it's difficult to find a downtown parking garage where you can leave your car for two or three hours for less than ten dollars more. So a simple drive to SF (about 1.3 gallons of gas for me) costs in the neighborhood of twenty to thirty bucks, if I use a car (the costs of buses and ferries, of course, are better than that, but those fares have also been ratcheted up in recent years - another example of a "non-shared" sacrifice enjoyed only by the civilian populace). And all of that is before the cost of whatever I had in mind as an activity in San Francisco. If I'm going out to dinner, obviously I'm over the hundred dollar mark at this point.

The bottom line is that it costs a lot to move around. If one is among the 47 million or so Americans on food stamps, or among the millions and millions of long-term unemployed, blowing a couple of hundred bucks on a long drive, or simply on a jaunt into the Big City for the day, can become an unaffordable luxury. I think this is what is really going on. An expense you can do without, you do without.

I also think this is part of a more general phenomenon in this country, the development of a kind of Human Dark Matter, an unseen cohort of people who have fallen off the grid and into an Underworld where they are not countable, where their economic activity cannot be measured because it doesn't show up in government numbers, or tax revenue figures, or in the official labor statistics. What you might call, increasingly, Real America. I'm working on a post called "Five Fractals In Search of A Macro-Iteration," a delightfully unpretentious title, don't you think? And the gasoline usage figures are part of that picture.

Updated: The graph, with its two-sided scale, is not altogether clear, so here are similar data in haec verba from the Of Two Minds blog:

"Deliveries steadily rose to a peak of 67.1 MGD [million gallons/day] in July 1998, declined marginally in the 2001-2 recession and then surged to 66.8 MGD in August 2003. If we just look at one month--say November--then we see that deliveries remained in a remarkably consistent channel from 1994 to 2008, between 54 MGD and 63 MGD, with the higher numbers occuring in the "peak bubble years" of 1998 and 2003.

"In 2010, gasoline deliveries declined to the low 40s--literally falling off the charts. In November 1983, deliveries were 51.1 MGD; in November 2010, they were 42.8 MGD, and in November 2011 they were 30.9 MGD."

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