Americans Are Driving Less

Americans don’t drive as much as they used to. The Department of Transportation estimates that Americans drove 2.9 trillion miles in the year from April 2011 to March 2012. That’s still a lot of vehicle miles—more than 9,300 miles per person. But that number is down about 3% from its peak at the end of 2007.


The timing of the peak is no coincidence. As the economics blog Calculated Risk explains, The number of miles Americans drive fell sharply with the beginning of the recession in 2008, as we began both to travel less and to transport fewer goods. In fact, recessions have been just about the only things that have ever reduced the number of miles we drive.

Rising oil prices are the other major reason that Americans drive less. The other major drops in the number of miles Americans drive coincided with the recessions in 1974 and the early 1980s. Those recessions, of course, were each caused in part by a sharp rise in the real price of oil. The 1974 recession was connected with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the recessions in the early 1980s were connected with the Iranian revolution and Iran-Iraq war. The most recent recession was also triggered in part by oil prices, which hit an all-time high in the middle of 2008 before Bush left office.

What’s surprising is not that Americans drove less as oil prices rose and the economy shrank, but that they still haven’t really started driving more again. Even though Americans have driven slightly more in recent months, the number of miles we’ve driven has generally continued to decline since the official end of the recession—in sharp contrast to its steady rise for most of the rest of last forty years. That probably has something to do with the weakness of the recovery, although the economy has been actually averaging 2.3% annual growth since the end of 2009. It probably also has something to do with oil prices, which have been on the rise again since falling sharply as world output shrank in 2009.

But there may be more to it. We may also be driving less because we’re getting older. As Calculated Risk points out, Census Bureau data show that Americans consume steadily less gas after their late 40s. That's probably largely because as they age they drive less. Now that Baby Boomers are all over 50, they are likely to drive less and less. That may be why the growth in the number of miles Americans drive actually began to slow well before the latest recession. It’s not likely to have much effect on gas prices, which are driven to a much larger extent by rising demand in the developing world. But it is good news for our already overtaxed infrastructure, and it should make the U.S. less a little less vulnerable to future spikes in oil prices.

Car wheel image from BestPhotoStudio / Shutterstock.com

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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Image: Abel Suyok
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