Since 2005, US petroleum consumption has decreased by from 20.8 million barrels per day (mbpd), to 18.9 mbpd, a decline of 1.85 mbpd. Much speculation has been made about the extent of the role that the recession and vehicle mileage standards have played. Seemingly, they would both appear to account for the majority of the decrease in consumption. And while that may be true, there are other innumerable factors which have played a role in lowering transportation sector oil consumption.
Firstly, the role of the recession should be not be held as paramount. Lower economic activity does lead to lower transportation and energy use, which then also leads to decreased oil consumption. But two problems with this analysis are that: A) the beginning of the decrease in US oil consumption was in 2005, preceding the beginning of the recession in late 2007, and B) the size of US economy has recovered past its pre-recession peak in 2011, implying greater economic demand for petroleum now (which is not true). While the recession has undoubtedly had an effect, other factors should be considered more strongly
For example, the usage of public transportation in the US has reached record highs in recent years. (It should be self-explanatory that a mile ridden on public transportation is more energy efficient than a mile driven by car.) According to the APTA, this past year saw the second highest public transit ridership numbers since 1957, only having been surpassed by ridership in 2008. Amtrak ridership is now the highest it has ever been. These increases may also tied to next factor of greater urban vs. suburban growth.
The rate of population growth within cities has increased faster than the rate of population growth in suburbs. While some disagree on whether or not the rate has in fact surpassed the rate of growth in suburbs, what cannot be denied is that increasing amounts of people are choosing to live the city over the suburb. Consequences of this include increased access and usage of public transpiration (as listed above). But, more importantly, moving to the city decreases the distance that individuals must commute to work. Whether you use a low-efficiency car or high-efficiency hybrid, a smaller commuting distance lowers oil consumption across the board.
Finally, the rate of growth of the amount of cars on the road is slowing. The number of total registered highway vehicles peaked in 2008, and has yet to recover to its high. While this is partially due to the recession, another factor is that today’s teens are waiting longer to get their driver’s licenses, signaling a slow change in the US away from being such a car-dependent society. The internet has substituted the car in providing the freedom yearned for during adolescent years.
While this list is far from exhaustive, hopefully it provides a wider perspective beyond the recession and vehicle mileage standards on why our transportation oil consumption is decreasing. In order to continue reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, we must be cognizant of these social factors. Indeed, smart policy should seek to strengthen these positive trends.