TCS Daily


Car Country

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 5, 2003 12:00 AM

You heard the news last week, didn't you? We Americans, who have been a car-driving, car-owning and car-loving nation for about a century, have now reached an inevitable milestone.

American households now have more vehicles than licensed drivers.

Yup. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's bureau of statistics there are 107 million U.S. households, each with 1.9 cars and 1.8 drivers. That comes out to 191 million drivers with 204 million vehicles parked inside or outside their homes.

The Department of Transportation's figures were released as part of a National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) based on extensive interviews of 60,000 Americans in 26,000 households. It confirms -- no surprise -- the overwhelming dominance of the automobile in American life.

We've all seen this coming. Our high schools now have vast parking lots because more teenagers have their own cars than ever before. More two-income families have both workers driving to separate job sites in their own cars. That guy with the Buick sedan in the driveway has an old GMC pickup truck over there in the side yard. The soccer mom in the Dodge minivan still has the old Mustang convertible she got after college. It runs okay and she plans to get it painted.

One of my best friends has a Ford Bronco so rusty you can literally poke holes in the hood with your finger. But it just won't quit, and he thinks he knows where he can get another hood. So, when there's a dirty job to do, the old 200,000-mile "Bronc" gets the call instead of the Cadillac, or his wife's Honda, or the Corvette sitting in the garage.

More and more middle class families have joined the rich in having separate vehicles for various tasks -- a high mileage "beater" to drive to work, an SUV or minivan for family and recreation use, and maybe some "fun car," an old but well-kept Chevy Camaro or a shiny little Miata.

Cars are more reliable today. They last longer. Hundred thousand mile cars are not at all uncommon anymore. And they are relatively cheap. My friend, Walt Lasch, sells and services cars from his little garage in Conneaut Lake, Pa. He's at the auction every week and sees them pouring through the sale lines. "I'm selling cars for the most part at around $12,000 to $13,000," he says. "And that's for a clean, low mileage, well-equipped Taurus (Ford) or Sable (Mercury) or a nice LeSabre (Buick) or Bonneville (Pontiac) from GM."

The range of newer and older cars owned by American families is reflected in the NHTS survey. In households with income of $100,000 or more the average car model year is 1996. In households with income of $25,000 or less the average model year is 1991.

Here are some other snapshots of our car nation taken from the NHTS.

Of all those household vehicles, 57 percent are traditional cars or station wagons. Vans and SUVs make up 21 percent of the total, and "light trucks," pickups, account for 19 percent. Then there are a small percentage of motorcycles and hulking RVs sitting in our garages and driveways.

We make 87 percent of our daily trips in these vehicles, and with us Americans it's either drive or walk. Of the remaining 13 percent of our daily trips, most (8.6 percent) are on foot. "Transit" (buses and trains) accounts for only 1.5 percent, and school buses for another1.7 percent. Bicycles and who knows what are in the remaining small percentile. The survey showed that there is an adult-sized bike in virtually every household, but only 8 percent of adults reported taking a bike ride in the past week.

Each person in an American household makes an average of about 4 trips a day and covers about 14,500 miles each year, most of it in cars. That's 4 trillion miles! Work (largely commuting) and work related trips account for about 18 percent of this travel. Social and recreational trips are 27 percent, going to church and school is almost 10 percent, and about 45 percent is family and personal business.

Remember, all these statistics cover "short trips," the run to the library or supermarket, the drive to the dentist or doctor, and of course, the commute to the office or factory. When you get to long distance travel (50 miles or more round trip) the auto is even more dominant.

The United States has about 4 million miles of paved roads and, boy, do we use them. In 2001, Americans took 2.6 billion long distance trips, 98 percent of them to destinations within the country and 62 percent within the traveler's home state.

We made 9 out of 10 of these trips in our automobiles. Of the remaining 10 percent, 7 percent was by air, 2 percent by bus and 1 percent by train. Air travel dominates the really long trips, of course, with 3 out of 4 round trips of 2000 miles or more.

But, on round trips of 500 to 1000 miles our cars get the nod 86 percent of the time, and even on round trips of 1000 to 2000 miles we use our cars more than half the time. Many people in northern climes who "winter" in Florida or Arizona, make 1000-plus mile trips in the fall and spring in their cars. (Storing a car in Florida, especially near the ocean, is not a good idea unless it is in an air-conditioned garage. The damp, salty air is just too hard on them).

Owning several cars and making long trips is not the sole province of the well off. People in households of $50,000-plus income (43 percent of the population) make 55 percent of the long distance trips, but they make 10 percent of them by air. The 45 percent of long trips made by persons in households of less than $50,000 income were overwhelmingly (over 90 percent) made in their cars, with most of the remainder made by bus.

There are plenty of people who are rolling up miles on the statistical fringe between long trips and normal daily travel. Our "household" is a good example. We have a cottage at Lake Conneaut, 146 miles from our home in Ligonier, Pa. My wife and I both went up there this past weekend, but I had to leave a day later, so we each took our own cars.

While I was up there, Walt Lasch was doing a state inspection of a pickup truck owned by a woman who also owns a minivan. "Every day she drives her children 50 miles north to a parochial school in Erie, then drives back in the afternoon to pick them up. Just figure it up," he says. She puts 200 miles a day on the van. Factor in 180 school days and there you have 36,000 miles. Add up other family trips and the actual mileage on her minivan this past year came to 43,000 miles, says Lasch.

Well, all these statistics are interesting, but they are just dressing on an obvious point: Americans, more than perhaps any other nation, have been free to fully embrace the use of a device unparalleled as an articulate, efficient, safe, comfortable, versatile mode of travel -- the automobile.

"Light rail," or whatever the latest public transit nostrum, doesn't get you to the parking lot of that interesting restaurant you've heard about in some little town. Nor does it get you back home. Nothing else gets you door to door like a car.

The introduction to the NHTS notes that the survey was conducted because (excuse the bureaucratese) "the process of improving the transportation infrastructure related to passenger travel requires an understanding of current passenger travel behavior patterns."

Read my lips. "Current passenger travel behavior" in America centers on the car. Now, if only the politicians and planners would listen.

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