Americans Driving Less. The Question Why Is Still Unsettled.


It is a well-established fact that Americans are driving less today than they were in 2004, the peak year for Vehicle Miles Traveled per capita. The lingering question is what accounts for the change: changing lifestyles and transportation preferences, a dismal economy or something else?

A new report by the USPIRG Education Fund concludes that the economy, as measured by the unemployment rate, has had only a tangential effect on driving. The study constructed a graph of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., comparing the change in employment and VMT per capita between 2005 and 2011 and found a weak correlation. The implication is that other factors must be responsible for the shift in behavior.

Source: "Moving off the Road." (Click for larger image.)
Source: “Moving off the Road.” (Click for larger image.)

Only seven states increased VMT per capita over that six-year period, most only marginally so. Every other state, including D.C., saw declines. In some cases, the declines were remarkable. D.C., for instance, saw a decline of 21.7%. In Georgia, driving tumbled 16.6%. (Virginia was in the middle of the pack, showing a 7.0% decline per capita.)

“Among the 23 states where driving declined faster than the national average,” the report states, “only 11 saw faster-than-average declines in the employed share of their working-age population.”

The evidence suggests that the nation’s per capita decline in driving cannot be dismissed as a temporary side effect of the recession. While certainly a contributing factor and an economic rebound could be expected to have some upward lift on driving, the recession does not appear to be the prime cause of the fall off in driving over the past eight years. Nor is it clear that future economic growth would lead to a resumption of the postwar Driving Boom. Policy makers can stop wondering whether American driving trends are changing. They should focus carefully on these trends, and start adapting policies to match them.

While I am inclined to agree with the authors that the macro economy is a modest factor in explaining the dip in driving, I find this study less than conclusive. Employment/unemployment is only one measure of economic activity. Another vital measure is income. The USPIRG study found that people living in states with higher average household incomes drive less on average than people in states with lower incomes. But that may simply reflect the fact that people with higher incomes tend to live in more urbanized states, where they have greater access to mass transit, while people with lower incomes live in more rural states, where destinations are scattered over greater distances. The study did not compare the change in income with the change in in VMT. It is plausible to hypothesize that people who experienced a loss in income tended to drive less. Until someone runs that analysis, I don’t think we can state that the debate has been definitively settled.



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20 responses to “Americans Driving Less. The Question Why Is Still Unsettled.”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    My daily driving miles declined 90% the day I moved my residence from Potomac Maryland to a home that’s a couple minutes walk to a DC subway stop. I suspect that my individual experience writ large might account of some of these changed statistics.

    However, should my right to park my car nearby my home be taken away from me, I will move out of DC the next day and never look back. And I suspect that so will a lot of other people, including students and apartment dwellers whose right to park their cars is under attack this very day.

    Quiet likely these assaults will soon include everyone who lives and works in DC (expect only the federal, state and local politicians of course), unless people in DC, including those pushing this destructive nonsense, wake up.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Another explanation for the decline in auto miles driven might be the decline of the Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family.

      With the toddler David and Rickie on the way, Ozzie and Harriet had two stark choices – stay in an urban city, or hop in the bright new Chevy and head for brand new outlying subdivisions. The choice then was obvious for this huge and rising post war demographic of young families.

      And their exercise of that choice was wholly dependent up their bright new Chevy. It was part of the new subdivision’s enormous appeal. America, particularly Ozzie, fallen in love with cars. Enjoying something his dad may well have been unable to afford, Ozzie built his family round his Chevy.

      The interests and needs of many of today’s rising affluent young adults are quite different. A hip urban mixed use lifestyle – one far less dependent on a car, good schools, big back yards or long commutes – is rapidly becoming for many of this new demographic group their alternative of choice.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Regarding the needs of today’s rising young affluent adults, its interesting to quote from comments following this websites article titled Demand Surges for Transit-oriented housing. The mix uses, starting after WW1 culminated with influx of young affluent into Connecticut Ave. DC in late 1930s – 1945 before Ozzie returned from war to start his family with different needs from younger generation going urban today:
        “Here’s a partial list of benefits a efficient mixed use commercial center served by mass transit to those not living in traditional nuclear family –

        … Compared to other types of housing, multi-unit residential buildings generate by far the lowest auto trips per day. Tenants rely on walking or mass transit, for work, shopping, and entertainment. Even the few auto trips taken to or from such buildings are typically far shorter, given the abundance and variety of nearby services. Thus typically high density tenants own fewer cars, and require less parking per unit.

        The interior living space, and exterior walls, per occupant is typically far smaller and more efficient than single family housing … tenants typically put far less demand on schools … tenants use far more mass transit, and use it far more efficiently … tenants lead far more efficient lives that most suburbanites. They have shorter commutes, more local conveniences, fewer kids, so enjoy far more “free time” to work, play, and spend money locally. Plus more are single. So they tend to go out more, to restaurants, bars, movies, galleries, plays, etc. than suburban cousins. Hence they pump vast sums into down-down local economies that would otherwise be dark and dangerous. These monies radiate throughout the city, whether in tips to waiters or sellers of expensive art, and everything imaginable in between …”

  2. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Another unrelated cause surely is the home computer. Far more people today can earn a living without going to an office every day if at all, and traveling to meetings between offices as well.

    Developers and land use decisions should enhance these trends for profits. Much gold for all concerned is hidden in these newly emerging trends.

    1. As I recall, GMU conducted a study some years ago that found a 3% reduction in vehicles on the road in the Virginia portion of the D.C. Metro yielded about a 10% reduction in traffic congestion. While many people cannot work remotely, many can.

      Several people in the law firm where I am Of Counsel live outside the area completely – Indianapolis, Champaign (IL), Denver and Houston. It takes different management skills, but well worth it.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Yes, another iteration of those statistics is the overwhelming pressure that Fairfax County puts on its own roads, shutting them down from use by others, including roads built and designed for the express purpose of carrying traffic that has to pass through Fairfax to get someplace else.

        Thus, the abysmal and irresponsible land use decisions of Fairfax have worked to inflict a daily plague on its neighbors for decades.

        Currently, however, those leaders responsible make no effort to fix the problem. Quite the reverse, since 2005, many of them have been hard at work figuring out how to make the most money off the problem. One way this is done is by maximizing the pain of gridlock off the toll roads until drivers are forced back into paying higher tolls to get anywhere. It’s done by appearing to do the reverse, forcing drivers off the toll roads by jacking up the toll rates until they are forced off the toll road. Then wait until gridlock there are forces them back again to pay a higher rate. Back and forth the game goes – commuter like game facing every more pain, ever more cost, ever more traffic, while the authorities collect ever more revenue to build yet more roads and rails to drive up land values. All done on the backs of citizens trying to get to work to earn a living.

        This practice began in 2005 as a lead up to the Airports Authority taking control of the toll road officially in 2008 to use it to turn commuters into cash cows for the benefit of the airports authority. To begin to understand this process, compare the toll rates on the Dulles Access Road for the roughly two decades from when it opened up until 2004, against what has happened since 2004. And don’t be fooled by the false promises made at the time, or the temporary short term lock in of rate.

        Meanwhile, of course, folks going directly to the airport get a free ride.

        1. I’ve been told the federal legislation that set up the transfer of Reagan National and Dulles to local control contains language prohibiting any tolls on the Dulles Access Road.

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            Yes, to protect a federal airport against tolls later imposed by the state of Virginia. Today’s airport authority would be the last ones ever too change that rule. Dulles Airport deems free access critical to its success. Its one reason for airports push to develop air cargo truck loading facilities within the airport. Only trucks loaded within the airport would enjoy a free ride north to the Capital Beltway.

          2. Potter would better spend his time trying to attract a low-price airline to Dulles that would grab market share from United at Dulles and everyone at Reagan National. Businesses often charge more in the D.C. area because of higher incomes. MWAA needs to disrupt that behavior by making Dulles the low-cost airport in the Mid-Atlantic. That will do more to fix his problems than any of these other schemes.

      2. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        TMT –

        Likely also in certain cases I suspect a telecomputing arrangement between “workers” at the core of getting things done can be far more efficient in many ways than the daily commute to the office arrangement, including in the case of many professions. Don’t know that for a fact, but surmise it.

    2. there’s a lot of variables. VMT alone will not detail, for instance, whether the drop came across all hours are just rush hours or outside rush hour.

      When METRO cuts congestion – it’s usually at rush hour.

      but from my own experience – rush hour in NoVa has not subsided and is still a nightmare.

      We still have way too many people who say that they have “no choice” but to drive SOLO every day – at RUSH HOUR.

      unless VMT reductions are at rush hour – they may not mean much – or at least not the same thing as VMT reductions at rush hour.

      Transportation is a big critter with lots and lots of moving parts and the goal of looking at data is not just to say “ah ha” but to use that information to better inform what improvements to focus on.

      so far.. in my view.. we’re not even at the “ah ha” stage.

  3. I think for more granularity in the studies is needed to get to data and beyond speculation.

    For instance:

    1. – how does VMT in urban areas contrast and compare according to economic metrics such as unemployment rate – over time – is there a correlation ?

    2. – some cities now have some significant toll roads – how does their VMT compare to cities without?

    3. – subway/Metro – is there a correlation between METRO ridership and VMT?

    See Jim talks about where NOT to put investment if there is a decline in, for instance, auto use but mobility is a metric that tells you 1. trips made regardless of mode or distances covered regardless of mode.

    In other words is a decrease in auto use reflect in an increase in other modes?

    Then if there is an increase in METRO/mass transit – we’re into a whole other conundrum which is WHAT transit and what transit trends?

    this gets back to BRT in that right now it’s an “idea” without some pretty flimsy assumptions and data.

    so let me add another – compare places with BRT with reduced VMT.

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    We are breaking whole new ground with tolls in Northern Virginia.

    The circumstances of the place and its problems combined with the means, objectives, goals, and the emergence of new technologies, threaten to open up a whole new world of possibilities for good or ill. So far I can the potential for a great deal of mischief, particularly given the abysmal track record to date.

  5. ” Average value of time saved irrelevant to toll express lanes”

    It’s not the average value of time saved (VoTS) that’s relevant to users of toll express lanes running alongside free lanes. It’s the higher time saved values of a small proportion of trips that choose the express lanes that determines how much the minority using express lanes will pay – the VOTS of the top decile or two of the distribution of total trips in the corridor.

    “In a toll express lane setting, implicit values of time are very likely to be that high ($1 to $2/minute saved.) The reason is that the ‘conventional’ value of time is actually an average, but in the real world, there is a log-normal distribution around that average that reflects not only the distribution of income, but also the urgency of the trip at the instant. Thus, the users who self-select to pay to join the toll express lane are drawn selectively from the UPPER TAIL of the VoT distribution, and would not be expected to display average values of time.”

    what this says (I think) is that people don’t pay tolls for a shorter/faster trip unless they have a particular need to do it.

    this came about from an earlier toll road news that showed that the higher the toll, the more demand… contrary to the basic premise of congestion pricing.

    Ok.. so what exactly is this saying? I’m not totally sure but people who need to get to an appointment who get on the road and find it a mess or going to bail for the toll lanes – no matter the price… (within reason).

    what this says (I think) is that the toll road operators may have to ratchet up the tolls even higher during congested periods to separate out the people who absolutely must get somewhere on time verses the folks who would like to but do have a price point.

    In the end – this is good IMHO because it does put an economic cost on not only reliable time – but the ability to be on-time. How much this affects VMT overall is a question.

    we’re no longer building toll roads to pay for new roads more capacity. We’re building toll roads to manage congestion. Building new roads in urbanized areas does not reduce congestion – it actually increases driving and congestion (from latent demand).

    so one explanation of VMT might be the fact that most urban areas are about done adding new roads and additional capacity and drivers are no longer going to put up with congestion like they used to…

    I’m an example. I will not use I-95 if it is chock-a-block. I’ll just not do the trip unless it is absolutely positively no way to accomplish my need other than drive at rush hour. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    The Tolls Road Follies appear to be a good deal wilder and woolier (or should I say hairier) up here in in Northern Virginia, Larry. One doesn’t know quite how to handled the subject, whether a report & analysis format is best, or a Shakespearean tragedy or comedy is the best genre for the subject matter.

  7. I’m a proponent of tolls especially in managing rush hour congestion even though I realize most folks hate tolls.

    the follow is NOT a Lecture but an opinion I hold and state strongly:

    Not every trip made at rush hour has the same economic value yet we have always prioritized our infrastructure funding to focus on addition capacity for ANY trip at rush hour and that approach has failed. The more infrastructure you build, the more latent demand sucks it up. And now, we’re basically out of easily obtained right-of-way for additional lanes in many places so they took the last remaining right of way and used it to build dynamically tolled lanes. there is no more easily obtained right-of-way for more lanes.

    People are all over the map on their opposition. The very same folks who say the govt is incompetent and corrupt – ironically want the govt, not the private sector to operate the toll roads if we must have them. They also say the roads are already paid for – as if only one of the three cost components of construction, operation and maintenance exist.

    Dynamic toll lanes next to untolled lanes, do provide choices for people. What it does not do is guarantee them new additional free lanes will be constructed – any longer. New connecting roads, some tolled, yes… but no more lanes.

    In other words, you live with what you have – and pay for what you consume, wonderful conservative ideas.

    But the reduction in VMT did catch folks by surprise, even for companies that did investor-grade studies, they’re not turning out to be as lucrative as originally thought and that is causing the private companies to pull back a bit on new ones and extending the expected ROI period. The economics of toll roads is still evolving.

    I believe the next few decades are set for NoVa – unless VDOT/Va decide to buy out Transurban and either operate themselves or turn off the electronic tolls. That’s not going to happen.

    Not only will 495 be tolled but so will I-95 and that’s going to dramatically change how rush hour “works” and it may well take a decade to establish a record of operation and better define the economics.

    but here’s a real toll road where when the tolls go up – demand INCREASES:

    “Study of Minneapolis dynamic priced lanes shows drivers see posted tolls as proxy for congestion – more likely to choose toll lanes when posted prices high”

    I’m not going to be surprised to see the HOT lanes in Washington do the same thing eventually.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    The US unemployment rate is a lie, shrouded in a deception, cloaked in a misrepresentation. Only the labor participation rate should be considered.

    The US labor participation rate has been falling since …. 2004.

    “If the decline stemmed largely from an aging work force, it would be much less worrisome. But the initial wave of baby-boomer retirements plays only a small role in the drop; the labor force participation rate has fallen almost as sharply for people aged 25 to 54 as it has for the overall adult population.”.

    Jim, do you expect the labor participation rate to rebound? If so, you should expect driving to rebound too.

    1. Interesting point. As I said in my post, I don’t think unemployment is an adequate measure of economic activity. The labor participation rate would be better. And, as I noted, income is a factor, too.

      Yes, I agree that macroeconomic activity explains part of the decline in VMT — but not all. The decline in VMT began *before* the recession. There are other forces at play.

    2. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Don’s comment opens up a world of new possibilities.

      Not long ago those who dropped out of the labor force found that their alternatives to work were not so easy as they had assumed. Entertainment was harder and more expensive to find than it is today. Often back then those who had dropped out of the work force had to drive to somewhere to get entertainment and do it with other people similarly disposed. And along the way they had to expend a fair amount of money, skill, or energy, and assume varying degrees of risk, to take advantage of it. The roads then could be filled with “people going nowhere.”

      Today all that has changed. All those who have dropped out of labor need to is sit in a chair at home and, with clicks of a mouse, open up a vast and ever changing menu of free “entertainment.” Hence roads empty out.

  9. sharks2th Avatar

    The answer is simple for me, I’m not going to pay $3.50+ per gallon of gas when the prices should be about a dollar less based on the per barrel prices over the last year or two. I do recognize the barrel price has risen in the past few weeks, but this shows the petro companies are gouging us because even though oil prices have risen 15-20% the price of gasoline at the pump has remained relatively stable. I combine trips (which I have always done anyway) and do less recreational activities than I did in the past. Also, have you noticed how the media is not hyping the rise in barrel prices like they did when the Republicans were in power. The media was announcing the rise in barrel prices every day when they wanted the Dems to regain power in Congress. Once the Dems took over Congress we never heard any more about the high gas prices.

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