Need more evidence of the recession's impact on Americans' lives? Look at cars, more specifically, how much less we've driven cars during the economic downtown. The latest data, above, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis tells the familiar story of Americans tightening their belts. The total number of vehicle miles driven in the U.S. peaked in November 2007 at some 3.03 trillion miles, just one month before the official beginning of the Great Recession. Since then, miles driven has leveled off to post-recession low of 2.93 trillion in November of last year.
We've seen similar flat-lines during other recessions, indicated by the gray vertical bars, even as demand for gas is pretty consistent in the short term. Miles driven fell following the 1973 oil crisis, which famously saw lines of cars waiting for gas after an OPEC embargo. And also during the recession in the early 1980s, spurred in large part by a spike in oil prices following the Iranian Revolution. But that the driving drop-off during the late-2000s recession, associated not with volatility in oil but in finance, has been sustained longer than previous downturns. This just goes to show how "great" the Great Recession has been. And by "great," we mean terrible.
What the miles driven data doesn't indicate is the lengths to which individuals and companies are trying to reduce their gas bill -- mainly, by putting a premium on fuel efficiency when buying new cars. Also not shown: Americans biking or walking or carpooling more. All of this just makes the recovery of the auto industry all the more surprising and impressive. But of course, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. A lot can be bought with an $80 billion government check.