As the Number of Americans with Driver’s Licenses Declines, So Should Oil Use

This post was written by James Coan, Research Associate at the Baker Institute Energy Forum.

New research shows that the percentage of Americans with driver’s licenses continues to decline, further justifying the often-repeated argument that U.S. gasoline consumption has peaked.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that between 2008 and 2010, the percentage of Americans with driver’s licenses fell among nearly every age group. The decline has been especially pronounced for younger drivers; while 75.5% of 19-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2008, only 69.5% had one in 2010.

As shown in their graph below, this decline continues a long-term trend for drivers under 40, and it is particularly true for the youngest drivers.

From an energy security standpoint, the reduced percentage of young Americans with licenses is likely contributing to reduced gasoline consumption. The Baker Institute, using data from the National Household Travel Survey, found that per-capita driving for Americans under 40 fell an astonishing 19-24% from 2001 to 2009.

Not having a license most obviously reduces miles driven (and thus gasoline use) through a direct channel – if many fewer people drive, it is unlikely the rest with licenses will increase their driving enough to offset those who do not drive at all.

Yet the most important issues may be indirect. Fewer young people with licenses could be indicative that vehicles are not as important to this generation. Sivak and Schoettle have previously found that the percentage of young drivers is inversely correlated with accessibility to the Internet. Even young people with licenses may not mind living in places where cars are rarely needed. I include myself in this group, and data show that young people on the whole are excited to live in cities.

Young people without licenses or a strong attachment to having a car are also likely to support policies to encourage growth of cities friendly to many forms of transportation besides driving. They are also likely to support fuel economy standards and advanced technology vehicles – since they barely use cars, they will think it is ridiculous that the U.S. should still have to deal with the national security and environmental baggage that comes with oil use.

These attitudes should be more politically influential now that people in their 30s, who have some more political clout than the youngest Americans, are also less likely to have a license. Sivak and Schoettle also found that the Baby Boomers, one of the largest and politically strongest groups, were also less likely to have a license between 2008 and 2010. If this trend continues – which is far from certain given the effects of the recession and the possibility of lower oil prices in the future – political support for policies to reduce oil use will strengthen further.