Canadians drove less, had more cars in early ’09

Canadians were driving less frequently in the early part of this year, even though they had more cars to put on the road, Statistics Canada said Wednesday in its first-quarter vehicle survey.

The federal agency said Canadians drove 70.8 billion kilometres between January and March, which was down 2.7 per cent from a year earlier.

This, despite there being 1.3 per cent more vehicles on the roads, meaning the mileage put on each one, on average, was down four per cent from the same period in 2008.

It marked the first time in three quarters that Canadians drove less in comparison to the previous year.

Canadians were driving smaller cars, according to Statistics Canada, which reported 5.4 per cent more of them on the road in this year’s first quarter compared to a year before. Meanwhile, the number of large passenger vehicles, such as vans, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, was down 3.5 per cent.

But driving trends for these types were going in opposite directions. Smaller vehicles were driven 3.3 per cent less while the mileage on larger passenger vehicles was up 0.9 per cent.

Statistics Canada noted that gasoline prices were down significantly in 2009’s first quarter compared to the previous year. Data collected by energy- industry consultancy MJ Ervin & Associates shows that the average price for regular gasoline in Canada in March 2009 was 87.9 cents a litre, down from $1. 102 in March 2008.

Carlos Gomes, a Scotiabank economist specializing in the auto industry, said the early part of this year marked the peak of the global economic crisis, dampening many people’s enthusiasm for travel.

“Most of the news at that point was fairly negative,” he said. “You had the global stock markets going down on daily basis, so people basically retrenched during that period.

“Consumer purchases fell significantly. All sorts of economic activity was under pressure, so it sort of makes sense that Canadians as a whole would be driving less in that period.”

But before the economic meltdown was underway, gasoline prices had been surging, reaching as much as $1.50 a litre in some Canadian markets during the summer of 2008. This helped sales of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars at the expense of larger vehicles, Gomes said. He added that sales of smaller cars were enough to create a net addition of vehicles on the road.

Yet people would have been less inhibited about driving their larger vehicles earlier this year because of the easing of gas prices, Gomes said.

“People who did have a larger vehicle that probably was parked at some point last year, they brought it out again as gas prices fell,” he said.

Photograph by: Getty Images