Uh, Oh, Maybe We Haven’t Reached “Peak Car”

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by James A. Bacon

Proponents of Smart Growth, of whom I am one, have been arguing for several years that Americans embarked upon a fundamental shift in driving habits beginning in the mid-2000s. So marked was the decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) that a certain triumphalism set in — the drop in driving signaled a shift back to mass transit and walkable urbanism. To be sure, some of the downturn could be attributed to the slow economy, but profound changes in values — a rejection of auto-centric development — was taking root. Some commentators went so far as to proclaim that America had reached “peak car,” and predicted that VMT per capita would continue to decline.

Well, the Federal Highway Administration has reported the latest numbers for 2014, and that triumphalism doesn’t seem quite as justified as it did a couple of years ago. Cumulative travel (measured by the moving 12-month average of Vehicle Miles Driven) increased 1.7% last year, bringing the total travel to a point just shy of the record in 2007. Even more worrisome, drivers were really on a tear at the end of the year. Traffic volume in December increased by 5% compared to the same month the year before.

I haven’t seen how other Smart Growthers have spun this data, and they may have interpretations that confirm their conviction that a big re-set is occurring in human settlement patterns. But I regard the data as grounds for re-examining some of my long-held beliefs — not to change them necessarily, but to go back and take a fresh look and see if they still hold up.

Clearly, the pick-up of the economy and increase in the number of jobs is a factor in putting Americans back on the road. More jobs means more commuting. The plunge in the price of gasoline toward the end of the year undoubtedly played a role as well — the increase in driving was particularly pronounced in the latter months of the year when motorists were enjoying the benefit of lower gas prices.

It’s also possible that the much-touted shift in development back to the urban core is less pronounced than commonly stated. There is no denying that the momentum of growth and development has shifted to some degree back toward traditional downtowns and urban neighborhoods. Downtowns are reviving. They are gaining population and jobs, in a reversal of a decades-long decline. But growth and development also continues in outlying suburbs.

I continue to believe that there is a strong unmet desire in the marketplace for walkable urbanism. But I’ve come to realize two things. First, there is a limited capacity for urban jurisdictions to accommodate new growth. Older cities have limited land available for infill, and re-development of existing commercial and residential areas is a slow, incremental process that takes place property by property and is limited by NIMBY resistance to greater density.

Second, the Suburban Growth Machine is still intact, even after the devastation of the 2007 real estate crash. There is still a vast reservoir of suburban land zoned for traditional, suburban-style development. It is still far easier to build large-scale projects in the burbs than it is in urban areas. Developers are adapting by building more urban-lite projects — mixed-use with some walkability thrown in. Rarely is this development transit-friendly (although there are exceptions, such as locations along the new Silver Line in Northern Virginia). The problem is that these nodes of mixed-use walkability are scattered across the suburban landscape. They rarely  connect. Accordingly, they do not achieve the critical scale required to truly change peoples’ lifestyles and reduce driving to a significant degree.

Bacon’s bottom line: I still maintain that we’ve bent the curve of the once-relentless increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled. While total VMT is nearing its previous peak, VMT per capita still remains considerably below the peak. My new modified position is that driving will continue to increase but on a slower growth trajectory than in previous decades. We’ll see how that prediction stands up to real-world data.

What about Virginia? The FHWA report provided a breakdown of travel by state for December 2014. Compared to the national increase of 5.0%, VMT in Virginia increased only 3.5%. Does that slower growth reflect Virginia’s laggard economy or something more profound? Stay tuned.

Update: Darin, who identifies himself as the ATL (Atlanta) Urbanist, tweets that the spike in VMT may be tied a marked increase in the size of the working age population. View thegraph here.

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7 responses to “Uh, Oh, Maybe We Haven’t Reached “Peak Car”

  1. I agree that we’ve “bent the curve,” but the “peak car” idea was always a little simplistic. You can’t expect VMT to simply stop responding to economic changes. A perfect storm of factors combined to reduce VMT 8 years ago. Some of those are long-term (culture shift, market saturation, development changes) and some are short-term (high gas prices, recession). With the economy picking back up and gas prices down by half, I don’t see how you couldn’t have an uptick in driving – and it could continue to grow more over the next few years. That said, I don’t think it will come close to “making up for lost time” or even return to growing consistently at its former rate.

    The “peak car” discussion was, to me, a textbook example of what’s wrong with the way we talk about changes in lifestyle and development. There is a marginal change in a historic trend that has huge consequences – like vmt is no longer growing steadily. But that quantitative change quickly gets translated into a narrative with headlines like “people don’t want to drive anymore” that, when translated back into quantitative terms, make no sense. That makes us over-state trends and lets naysayers have a field day.

  2. See:

    http://www.henricomonthly.com/news/are-we-there-yet

    I did a cover for Henrico and Chesterfield Monthlies suggesting that advancements in auto technology may mean the car is here to stay for a long time and it may not be time just yet to write off the suburbs.

    Another reason is cheaper gas.

  3. If nothing else, the disruption to the linear growth in VMT has caused introspective planners to question their assumptions about growth rates and settlement patterns. In Virginia, anyone suggesting a roadway project based on expected population and vehicle estimates needs to answer the question: “How is this not the Pocahontas Parkway?”

    Of course, the suburbs are aided greatly by HUD not supporting renters nearly to the level of subsidies made available to homeowners by the tax code and the FHA. To say nothing of FHA’s statutory bias against mixed use dwellings.

  4. You were always dreaming, Jim. I believe I said so in years-ago arguments about transportation funding. But hooray to you for admitting that the data has turned against you. You should also note that the vehicles traveling those miles are also heavier and less fuel efficient. Drop the price of gas and people go right back to the gigantic trucks and monster SUVS. Darn this freedom business, it let’s people just be dumb!

  5. long story, short -the economy is turning around.

    but I’d pay close attention to the HOT lanes in NoVa and I-95 from NoVa to Stafford because one of their main goals is to get people out of SOVs.

    this is another one of those issues where the overall numbers mask the data below.

    I doubt VMT in Norton Va or Emporia Va has moved at all – up or down. Ditto for much of RovA.

    VMT for NoVa, Richmond, Roanoke, Harrisonburg might be revealing.

    Steve is right – mobility is freedom. we take it for granted. The idea that anyone would tell you that you can’t hop in your car and go to Myrtle Beach next weekend would be considered so outrageous that we’d dismiss it as a bad joke.

    if you want a similar response – tell someone they have to pay $12 in tolls to drive SOLO to NoVa and then $12 to get back.

  6. Well darn it, working three part time jobs doesn’t mean they will all be in the same strip mall.

    • well yes.. I’ve noticed that all along.. despite the “live, work, play, shop” all in one place concept – the reality of todays employment world is that that kind of settlement pattern is a vestige of a world where one worked a career at one company and we’re long sense past that especially with the advent of super roads – interstates and beltways.

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