Uh, Oh, Virginians Are Driving More. A Lot More.

Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled. Data source: Virginia Department of Transportation

Now that we’ve learned that Millennials have the same driving habits as previous generations — as soon as they can afford to, they buy their own cars and drive them just as much (see previous post) — we can dispense with the delusion that their enlightened consumer preferences will induce them to abandon the practice of driving solo in their own cars and take to buses, bicycles and mass transit in large numbers regardless of what else is happening in the economy.

After writing the previous post, I decided to revisit some numbers that I haven’t seen published in years — Vehicle Miles Traveled in Virginia. The updated numbers are startling. After hitting a seven-year plateau, VMT between 2014 and 2017 resumed the upward climb on the same trajectory as seen during the 2000s real estate boom and heyday of suburban sprawl.

Back in the 2000s, I spilled considerable digital ink warning that the upward trend would not continue indefinitely, and that state projections of unfunded transportation needs in the multiple tens of billions of dollars were not warranted. Lo and behold, along came a recession and a rediscovery of the value of walkable urbanism, and VMT flattened out. Transportation crisis averted. But now VMT is climbing again, and there is no ignoring it. Roads are getting congested again.

What’s going on? My theory is that the demand for walkable communities, where people can drive less, is under-served. To some degree, growth and development have shifted back to core urban areas in Virginia, stimulating urban revitalization, but zoning and NIMBYism make it impossible for core jurisdictions to build enough to meet demand. So home builders go where they can build — in outlying counties which have plenty of zoning approvals left over from the previous decade.

I hypothesize that many Millennial families aren’t moving into the kinds of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods they’d prefer, but their desire to buy their own homes and to raise children in decent suburban public schools impels them into auto-dependent neighborhoods. That’s not what they’d wish for in an ideal world, but given the choices they’re offered, they’re willing to pay the price.

Now it’s time to ask the question: Is Virginia heading to the transportation underfunding crisis predicted in the 2000s but delayed by seven years? The answer is: probably, but not inevitably. It all depends on how fast Virginia cities and counties can mend their urban fabric to accommodate walkable urbanism and transform the economics of mass transit, which remains a financial sinkhole. It also depends on how the new automotive revolution — electric vehicles, self-driving cars, Mobility as a Service — transforms driving habits. The fact is, we don’t know the answers.

However, I can say two things with confidence. The usual suspects will re-start the clamor that we need Mo’ Money for roads, bridges, highways and transit. And straight-line projections of current trends are likely to be wrong.

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11 responses to “Uh, Oh, Virginians Are Driving More. A Lot More.”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner


    According to EIA the retail price of gas, adjusted for inflation, is as low or lower than it was four decades ago. The other reason, a booming economy, people with money to travel and businesses with product to move. Last week noted retail prices of gasoline in France running from 1.5 to 1.7 Euros per liter, say $6-7 bucks a gallon. That 1) incentivizes smaller cars (clearly the case, saw zero honking big SUVs) and 2) promotes use of various mass transit options funded by (voila) the high fuel taxes. Anybody who pushes that with the American Voter will last a matter of seconds…..

  2. You’re absolutely right — the per-gallon cost of gasoline is a major factor. Low gas prices from the fracking revolution may be encouraging more driving in the U.S. I should have taken that into account in my analysis.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      During 12 years of regular commutes to Newport News, usually at early hours, I regularly noted variations in the truck traffic based on the general economic conditions of the time. Since our economy is so truck-dependent, recessions were great for congestion relief. Want one?

    2. TBill Avatar

      Gaso prices are low, low, low. Keep in mind, although we do not have EU style taxes, gasoline is still heavily taxed here. If we look at after-tax cost, gaso is really low cost. We are talking $4 in California these days: they have added a climate change (CO2) tax etc. Also these days many people are getting discounts when they buy gas (eg; Giant Foods etc). I have not seen any data on how much discount the average motorist ts getting.

      Yesterday I only had 20-cents off from Giant Foods: I filled up our Prius …it took 5.8 gals…ooh the pain. But part of that is older Prius had flexible bladder gas tank that shrinks with age. So we have to make more frequent fill-ups with this 13-yr old Prius.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    I have the miles driven from 2014 to 2017 growing at 1.66% per year. Meanwhile, Virginia population from 2010 to 2018 grew at 0.79% per year. So, it does look like miles driven is growing faster than the population.

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I’m in Scotland. The price per litre of gasoline is between 1.23 -1.31 pounds. Diesel is between 1.31 & 1.35.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s not rocket science. People who work at a decent wage in NoVa and other urban areas cannot afford what a single family detached home costs in the same urban area so they drive until the price is what they can afford.

    The problem is that most of them say they “have no choice” but to drive solo to/from work and therein is the problem and the reason why we have congestion tolling that rewards HOV and penalizes SOV. Gasoline at $5 a gallon like it is in Europe/Scotland/Canada would also encourage HOV and penalize SOV.

    It’s not how many roads you build or even how much the gas tax is – it’s how much a given road can carry at rush hour ……. the same road “costs” more when demand is more. It either will cost you more in time-delay or for more and more – a dynamic toll.

    The whole idea of “walkable/bikewable” to/from where you work, shop and play is largely a myth. It may be true for some small segment of people but the vast majority work urban and commute to exurban and the only solution to that is tolls – because the more lanes you add, the more you encourage even more to commute solo.

    not rocket science – just a willingness to recognize reality.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    one more – until or unless the politicos force changes on VDOT’s Smart Scale, the era of new/expanded roads is largely over. Congestion Relief is no longer defined as more road capacity for solo commuting. The calculation now is how many people can move in a given time on a given transportation mode. That’s bad news for exurban commuters.

  7. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Larry hit the nail on the head. The issue before traffic engineers is moving the most number of people between points efficiently. So a HOV trip with a driver and three riders beats three SOV trips on efficiency. The problem comes with mass transit that has such huge costs and requires considerable density and usage to operate efficiently.

    I’ve seen lots of buses (not very filled) in rural Scotland. And countless cars and trucks, all driving on the other side of the road. Autos seem more efficient, shutting off at stops & restarting, moving from four cylinders to two when less power is needed.

  8. Heading for a transportation underfunding crisis? Been there for decades already. Smart Scale has swallowed up maintenance money overall and taken funds from smaller communities. VDOT’s cut revenue sharing where localities match 50% of otherwise unfunded work. Rural maintenance is an oxymoron. There’s no money in Saluda district to hire contractors to cut grass, so no road maintenance and no roadside ditch work will be done while local VDOT cuts grass starting (continuing) now. No pipe replacements get scheduled unless there’s a collapse. Our local staff get pulled to other counties to assist with their needs, and end of the road Mathews gets no help in return. Don’t know how other localities are being affected, but I’ll bet there’s no surplus of maintenance funds. Meanwhile, money gets dumped into sidewalks and crosswalks where almost no one walks (Gloucester Route 17 for example). Waiting to see next week what Phase 2 of the Mathews Main Street Enhancement project will offer (or take away). Phase one narrowed our Main St so it’s no longer safe to ride a bicycle or have trucks, logging, and farm equipment on it. Throwing riprap on crumbling shoulders isn’t fixing problems or making roads safer, but that seems to be the new normal.

    1. TBill Avatar

      NoVA has had 4+feet tall median grass for about 10-years now, since a few years after we moved here. Probably a mistake to plant tall fescue on the medians contributes to the problem maybe.

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