Demographics and Changing Social Trends Behind Gasoline Sales Plunge

It's no secret (at least it shouldn't be) that gasoline sales have plunged. Here is a chart from my April 6 post Another Plunge in 3-Month Rolling Average of Petroleum and Gasoline Usage for Jan, Feb, March 2012

Jan-Feb-March 2012 petroleum and gasoline usage vs. the same three months in prior years.

Every month for quite some time, the rolling average of petroleum and gasoline usage has been trending down. The question is "Why?"

Some pin this on car mileage improvements but that answer is easy to discredit. Fuel efficiency has been rising for more than a decade, but the plunge did not start until the Great Recession in 2007.

However, the Great Recession is over, yet gasoline sales have not rebounded. Is this an indication another recession is on the horizon? That the recession never ended? Something else?

Transportation and the New Generation

Inquiring minds are reading a Frontier Group study Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People Are Driving Less

From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004.

The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting – even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons – higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences – all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

America’s young people are decreasing the amount they drive and increasing their use of transportation alternatives.

  • According to the National Household Travel Survey, from 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent.
  • In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.
  • In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-year-olds living in 2001.
  • From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent.
  • According to Federal Highway Administration, from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.
Young people’s transportation priorities and preferences differ from those of older generations.
  • Many young people choose to replace driving with alternative transportation. According to a recent survey by KRC Research and Zipcar, 45 percent of young people (18-34 years old) polled said they have consciously made an effort to replace driving with transportation alternatives – this is compared with approximately 32 percent of all older populations.
  • Many of America’s youth prefer to live places where they can easily walk, bike, and take public transportation. According to a recent study by the National Association for Realtors, young people are the generation most likely to prefer to live in an area characterized by nearby shopping, restaurants, schools, and public transportation as opposed to sprawl.
  • Some young people purposely reduce their driving in an effort to curb their environmental impact. In the KRC Zipcar survey, 16 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds polled said they strongly agreed with the statement, “I want to protect the environment, so I drive less.” This is compared to approximately 9 percent of older generations.

The trend toward reduced driving has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.

  • The average young person (age 16-34) with a job drove 10,700 miles in 2009, compared with 12,800 miles in 2001.
  • From 2001 to 2009, young people (16-34 years old) who lived in households with annual incomes of over ,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent

Long-Term Unemployment

Generation Y is not the only reason behind the plunge. Please consider Mean Duration Long-Term-Unemployment.

From 1980-2010 the average length of unemployment is between 15 and 20 weeks. Now it is 40. The unemployed are not driving to jobs they do not have.

Labor Force vs. Those Not in Labor Force

Labor Force Analysis

  • Between 1980 and 1990 those not in the labor force was relatively constant while the labor force grew at a steady rate.
  • Between 1990 and 2007 the labor force grew faster than those not in the labor force.
  • Since 2008 those not in the labor force is in a strong uptrend while the labor force has been flat.

Nearly 9 million have dropped out of the labor force since November 2007 while the labor force itself is flat. It is safe to assume that group of dropouts is driving far fewer miles on average than they were before.

Boomer Demographics

The mass retirement of boomers, much of it forced retirement is also in play. By forced retirement I mean those who exhausted unemployment benefits and retired to collect social security benefits even though they really want a job.


Timing is such that we can safely rule out cash-for-clunkers as a significant reason behind the plunge. Likewise, improvements in fuel mileage have continuous over decades and cannot account for a sudden plunge.

Reasons for Plunge in Gasoline Sales in Order of Importance

  1. Huge rise in those "not in labor force"
  2. Boomer demographics and retirement (much of it forced)
  3. Chronic long-term unemployment
  4. Changing social trends in younger generations, no doubt accelerated by the recession and student debt
  5. Declining real wages leave consumers with less discretionary spending cash (think shorter vacations closer to home)
  6. High price of gasoline
  7. Increase in online shopping means fewer trips
  8. Improved fuel rates and cash-for-clunkers

What About Car Sales?

Points two and three are a subset of those "not in labor force". Looking ahead, points 1 through 4 (especially points 2 and 4) will help put a cap on car sales.

Thus, those looking for auto sales' reversion-to-the-mean plus an overshoot, may have seen the overshoot already.

Source: Global Economic Analysis

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