September 23, 2014 / 4:03 PM / 3 years ago

Motorists return to U.S. roads, driving more miles, using less gas

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. motorists drove more miles this summer than at any time since the 2008 financial crisis, according to government data, but the cause and implications of the roadway revival may be different than in years past.

The slow recovery in total miles driven may have more to do with a resurgence in vehicle sales due to zero- or low-interest loans than a long-term return to increased driving. But some experts suggested the data may be misleading, with trends like increased telecommuting and an aging population spending less time behind the wheel.

Americans’ driving habits are a closely watched indicator for oil traders since U.S. gasoline use makes up about one-tenth of global oil demand, but consumption is still weak as fuel-economy standards rise faster than miles driven.

Motorists drove an estimated 266.8 billion miles on U.S. highways and roads in July, up 1.5 percent from the same month in the previous year, according to recent data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). The July figure is just shy of the 10-year high recorded in August 2007, before the Great Recession resulted in massive unemployment and forced consumers to scale back travel. Total miles typically peak in July and August for vacation travel.

For the first six months of 2014, vehicle miles traveled, the FHA measuring stick, were the highest since 2008, before the outbreak of the financial crisis.

Low-interest financing has helped spur new car sales to the highest levels in more than a decade, encouraging more drivers to hit the roads, according to AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair.

“Most new cars get good fuel economy and gas prices are falling. Combine that with an economy that’s slowly coming back and we see lots of road trips. Our travel projections for Labor Day showed a willingness of travelers to use credit cards to finance a trip, which could be a general trend,“ Sinclair said.”

GASOLINE CONSUMPTION FLAT

The latest monthly figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show gasoline consumption remained little changed.

In June, the United States consumed 9.03 million barrels per day (bpd) of gasoline, slightly less than the year before and about 5 percent less than 9.49 million bpd in June 2007, according to EIA data.

In 2013, the United States used about 8.8 million barrels per day of gasoline, 4.4 percent less than the ten-year high of 9.2 million bpd seen in 2006, according EIA data.

The softer consumption came as cars get more miles per gallon. Last month, the fuel economy of new cars reached record highs, rising to 25.8 miles per gallon, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Michael Sivak, a professor at the institute, said in the last few years people were driving less and consuming less gas. He said historically the decline would be related to poor economic conditions, but that analysis no longer applies.

“The reductions in these rates likely reflect fundamental, non-economic changes in society, such as increased telecommuting, increased use of public transportation, increased urbanization of the population, and changes in the age composition of drivers,” Sivak said in an email.

The EIA agrees that the dynamics of the automobile industry have changed.

”Before the 2007 peak, travel behavior in the United States tracked closely with economic growth,” the agency noted in a report. “Since 2007, trends in U.S. [driving] have not followed the trends in economic indicators such as income and employment as closely.”

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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