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Ohio’s ‘driving boom’ slowing down

Ohio motorists are driving more than they did during the downturn, but a decades-long “driving boom” finally may be over, according to the Ohio Public Interest Research Group.

For years, the average number of miles traveled by Ohio drivers continued to rise, peaking at 9,744 in 2004, the group said.

But that dropped in subsequent years, and Ohioans significantly cut back on driving during the recession.

Ohio drivers are logging more miles again, but auto travel may plateau or decline in coming years because of high gas prices, increased use of public transportation, migration back into urban centers and evolving telecommunications, researchers said.

“Many causes of the 60-year driving boom have run out of steam, things like the creation of new suburbs or women newly entering the labor force,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with Ohio PIRG, a consumer watchdog group. “There is not a lot of reason to think that (the driving boom will return).”

Ohio motorists on average drove 9,700 miles in 2011, up 0.1 percent from 2010 and 1.2 percent from 2009, according to federal data analyzed by Ohio PIRG.

Drivers in Ohio on average logged more miles at a time when motorists in most states drove less, according to data from Ohio PIRG.

Ohio was one of only 10 states that saw an increase in per capita miles traveled between 2010 and 2011. Ohio was also one of only three states that saw a slight increase in per capita miles traveled between 2005 and 2011. Indiana and South Dakota were the other two.

But driving peaked in Ohio in 2004, and there is some evidence that motorists may drive less in the future.

Driving habits are changing because young people and aging baby boomers are moving back into cities.

People who migrate from suburbs to urban areas often have better access to public transportation and often they live closer to work and recreational options, Baxandall said.

“2011 and 2012 were the first two years in 90 years where central cities grew faster than their suburbs,” he said.

More people are working from home at least some of the time because of improved telecommunications.    Consumers increasingly are shopping online, reducing how often they drive to the store or the mall.

“The way people connect and interact no longer requires driving around to places,” Baxandall said.

High gas prices also give consumers an incentive to cut back on driving. Some people decide to carpool to work or take public transportation. Some people decide to walk or bike to work.

“We did a survey, and half of U.S. adults consider $3.44 per gallon to be too much to pay for gasoline,” said Cindy Atrican, AAA Allied Group for the Miami Valley market. “It takes a lot to change people’s behavior (but) people will economize and they will plan a way to use gas wisely.”

Some people do not have to drive much because they are unemployed, and they do not have to commute to work and do not have income for travel and many shopping trips.

Weather also can impact driving behavior because people take fewer trips when road conditions are slippery and snowy, Atrican said. Across the country, motorists drove more in the first quarter of 2012 compared to 2011 likely because it was a more milder winter, she said.

Young people also are driving less than they did in the past because increasingly their social lives take place online and they are communicating more through texting, e-mail and social media sites, experts said.

Many younger people are delaying getting their driver’s licenses until they are 18 or older, which is often motivated by a lack of money for auto costs, Atrican said.

People also spend less time behind the wheel as they get older, and the baby boomer population is graying, she said.

The slowdown in driving growth means Ohio and other states should reevaluate transportation spending and reinvest in existing infrastructure and public transportation rather than building new highways and expanding old ones, Baxandall said.

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