Vehicle Miles Traveled: Where the Action Is

Where Vehicle Miles Traveled has increased the most, 2002 to 2015, as shown on this map of VDOT's transportation districts.
Where Vehicle Miles Traveled has increased the most, 2002 to 2015, as shown on this map of VDOT’s transportation districts.

A few days ago I published a graph showing that Virginia has experienced a modest increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) since 2002, but I couldn’t draw any meaningful conclusions. Statewide numbers obscure the traffic dynamics in different parts of the state, and I didn’t have the time to drill deeper.

Inspired no doubt by my sparkling prose, Carol Bova took the trouble to compile the VMT numbers broken down by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)’s nine transportation districts between 2002 and 2015. As the beneficiary of her exertions, I no longer have any excuses.

The data make it very clear: While Virginia roads and highways are getting more congested overall, some are getting congested faster than others. Indeed, some parts of the state are de-congesting (if that’s a word). This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Virginia’s demographic trends. The districts with stagnant VMT are experiencing stagnant or shrinking populations.

The overwhelming increase in VMT occurred in the  yellow oval in the map above. Other than an anomalous jump in Interstate traffic in the Staunton district — either Interstate 81 is getting very busy or Northern Virginia’s Interstate 66 commuter shed has leaped over the Blue Ridge Mountains — the overwhelming majority of the traffic growth occurred in just four districts: Northern Virginia, Richmond, Fredericksburg and Culpeper. Those four districts saw an increase of 13.2 million Vehicle Miles Traveled over the 13-year period — four times more than the 3.1 million increase for the other five districts combined.

Even this conclusion cries out for more granularity. The growth in VMT was almost assuredly more concentrated than a glance at transportation districts alone would show. The growth in the Richmond district occurred mainly in the Richmond metro area, not the rural expanse to the south. Likewise, growth in Culpeper and Fredericksburg assuredly took place in the counties in the growth path of metropolitan Washington. (Charlottesville might have added a small kicker for the Culpeper region.)

For all the region’s traffic bottlenecks, the percentage VMT growth in Hampton Roads was modest — on a par with Roanoke/Salem, a less populated transportation district. The Lynchburg district tread water, while the Bristol district lost traffic.

As an aperitif, here is a breakdown of the Vehicle Miles Traveled in absolute numbers (not percentage growth) broken down by transportation district in 2015. While traffic volume may be increasing the fastest in the Culpeper/Fredericksburg exurbs, the districts representing the three main metros — and that includes Hampton Roads — still predominate.

VDOT data exists to drill down locality by locality to confirm or rebut my tentative conclusions. If I ever have the time, I will compare 2002 and 2015 VMT for each Virginia locality and map the percentage increase with Exel’s cool new data mapping software (assuming I can figure out how it works). But don’t hold your breath. My sponsors keep me busy with energy and higher-ed.

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2 responses to “Vehicle Miles Traveled: Where the Action Is”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    keep in mind the Fredericksburg District is not the MSA – MPO.

    take a look:

    the MSA , MPO is Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania so in order to get a more accurate picture – you’d need to focus only on the actual counties/jurisdictions that are in the commute region of Wash Metro – and subtract out the VMT for the rural, non-commuting counties.

    In the Fredericksburg district -you’d have to subtract 11 of the 14 counties to get a more accurate picture of the VMT and congestion.

    I’ve been saying this for quite some time in BR but apparently it’s not recognized and therefore – in my view – folks are not cognizant of the realities and if you don’t know the realities.. any subsequent analysis and opinions formed are not so good.

    so “Where the Action IS” is really WHERE economic activity is and substantial commuting is taking place and the Washington DC Metro Area and the exurban commuting counties that ring it – are where the action is.

    Don’t take my word for it – alone – just take a look where VDOT is now actively implementing dynamic congestion tolling in Va.

    Not in Richmond. Not in Charlottesville or Roanoke or Lynchburg and so far only in the tunnels in Hampton.

    Some people do not agree with the decision. They hate tolls and especially so “surge pricing” of those tolls..

    I purposely use the phrase “surge pricing” instead of “dynamic tolling” because apparently more than a few folks do not understand what “dynamic tolling” is nor the justification for it – or how it actually works but they apparently DO understand how “surge pricing” works for ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft – which some here including Mr. Bacon TOUT as THE WAY to provide people with more choices for mobility.

    Well.. VDOT has done essentially the same thing with I-95 and I-66 to accomplish the same thing that Uber and Lyft are accomplishing – and that is when you have a limited resources – like taxi’s – you let the supply and demand of economics decide price.

    VDOT is doing the same exact thing with HOT (High Occupancy toll) lanes – by dynamically pricing the tolls … just like Uber and Lyft do…

    One major difference is that unlike Uber and Lyft which pocket the profits, VDOT spits the profits with Concessionaire Transurban and uses it’s share for thing like more park & ride commuter lots and transit facilities and services.

    I support a better public understanding of dynamic tolling and the rationale behind VDOT choosing to implement “surge pricing” on I-95 and I-66 in the Washington Metro area – rather than add more “free” lanes t those roads.

    I’d ask Jim Bacon – who often “interviews” folks – like Sean Connaughton when he was Secretary to return to interview Aubrey L. Layne on the strategic plan for I-95 and I-66 in the Wash Metro Area and perhaps it’s relationship to the Smart Scale Methodology that has been adopted.

    Long story short – we are moving away from thinking that more and wider roads are what VDOT does these days in response to growth and congestion.

    It’s changed… and BR could help inform people about that change!

    Smart Scale is complicated in how it works but fundamentally for the Urban areas – new projects are judged in large part whether or not they actually reduce congestion… or just end up encouraging more driving… They’re using models to determine that – and if a proposed road ends up not reducing congestion – it’s not considered a “good” investment and it scores low and ends up getting rejected – to the chagrin of localities with pet projects and developers looking for “stimulus” projects.

    VDOT has a “plan” for VMT – it’s real but it’s not well understood to this point in time and it’s not well liked by conventional thinking folks who expect more roads… as the cure to increasing VMT.

    As we speak – VDOT is planning on extending “surge pricing” of I-95 to the Rappahannock River in the 2019-2021 timeframe.

    so in not a long time – if you are headed to Washington – you’ll have to decide if you want to take the “free lanes” or pay a toll – a dynamic/surge priced toll.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    The other concept to be aware of in Virginia these days is COSS

    VTrans 2035 Corridors of Statewide Significance

    The CoSS concept was first introduced in VTrans 2025

    The purpose was to focus on multimodal solutions to move people and goods within and through Virginia. The criteria for being designated included:

    · The corridor must have multiple modes or be an extended freight corridor;

    · The corridor connects regions, states and/or major activity centers;

    · The corridor provides for a high volume of travel; and

    · The corridor provides a unique statewide function and/or addresses statewide goals.

    here it is for Northern Virginia:

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