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US PIRG report finds reduced driving and rates of car commuting in most populous US urbanized areas

VMT per capita has declined across the US (2006 to 2011). States with shading are missing reliable data for all or part of an urbanized area, and ‘X’s denote the location of excluded urbanized areas. Source: US PIRG. Click to enlarge.

A new report by the US PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group details reduced driving miles and rates of car commuting in the US’ most populous urbanized areas, as well as greater use of public transit and biking in most cities. The average American drives 7.6% fewer miles today than when per-capita driving peaked in 2004.

The report, “Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities,” is based on the most current available government data and is, according to US PIRG, the first national study to compare transportation trends for America’s largest cities and lists results for each. Among the report’s national findings:

  • The proportion of workers commuting by private vehicle—either alone or in a carpool—declined in 99 out of 100 of America’s most populous urbanized areas between 2000 and the 2007-2011 period averaged in US Census data.

  • The proportion of residents working from home has increased in 100 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas since 2000.

  • The average number of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) per capita declined in 54 out of the 74 large urbanized areas the trends of which could be analyzed between 2006 and 2011.

  • New Orleans has seen the largest drop in per-capita VMT (22%) since 2006, possibly a result of Hurricane Katrina. The urbanized areas containing two Wisconsin cities, Milwaukee and Madison, saw the second and third biggest drops in per-capita VMT: 21% and 18%, respectively. Two Pennsylvania urbanized areas, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, saw the fourth and fifth biggest drops in per-capita VMT: 14: and 13:, respectively.

  • The proportion of households without cars increased in 84 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas from 2006 to 2011. The proportion of households with two cars or more cars decreased in 86 out of the 100 of these areas during that period.

  • The proportion of residents bicycling to work increased in 85 out of 100 of America’s largest urbanized areas between 2000 and 2007-2011.

  • The number of passenger-miles traveled per capita on transit increased in 60 out of 98 of America’s large urbanized areas whose trends could be analyzed between 2005 and 2010.

The study found that cities with the largest decreases in driving were not those hit hardest by the recession. Rather, the economies of urbanized areas with the largest declines in driving appear to have been less affected by the recession according to unemployment, income and poverty indicators.

  • Between 2006 and 2011, the average increase in the unemployment rate in the 15 urbanized areas with the highest per-capita declines in VMT was 3.9 percent, while the average increase in all other urbanized areas was 4.6 percent.

  • Between 2006 and 2011, the average increase in the poverty rate of the 15 urbanized areas with the highest per-capita declines in VMT was 2.7 percent, while the average increase in all other urbanized areas was 3.6 percent.

The Millennial generation, which will constitute the largest share of future travelers, is leading these trends. Previous research by US PIRG Education Fund and others has shown that young people have the steepest reductions in driving. Americans 16 to 34 years of age reduced their average driving miles by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009.

The report makes a number of policy recommendation based on its findings:

  • Revisit transportation plans. Many existing transportation plans continue to reflect assumptions that the number of miles driven will continue to rise steadily over time. Officials at all levels should revisit transportation plans to ensure that they reflect recent declines in driving and new understandings of the future demand for travel.

  • Reallocate resources. With driving stagnating in many areas and demand for transit, bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure increasing, officials should reallocate resources away from highway expansion projects and toward system repair and programs that expand the range of transportation options available to Americans.

  • Remove barriers to non-driving transportation options. In many areas, planning and zoning laws and transportation funding rules limit public officials’ ability to expand access to transportation choices. Officials at all levels should remove these barriers and ensure access to funding for non-driving forms of transportation.

  • Use innovative travel tools and services. New technologies and techniques provide transportation officials with new tools to address transportation challenges. Transportation agencies should encourage the use of carsharing, bikesharing and ridesharing and provide real-time travel information for public transit via smartphone.

  • Get better data. Transportation agencies should compile and make available to the public more comprehensive, comparable and timely data to allow for better informed analysis of the causes and magnitude of changes in driving trends. Officials at all levels should eliminate inconsistencies in the reporting of transportation data, increase the frequency of surveys that shed light on changes in transportation preferences and behaviors, and use emerging new sources of information made possible by new technologies in order to gain a better grasp of how driving trends are changing and why.



I think that the conclusions drawn from the data are a bit simple and seem to have a 'leaning' to them. For example: reallocating resources away from car infrastructure (parking, residential parking capacity (zoning minimum parking), roadway repairs and upgrades, new arteries and optimized urban routes) to collective transportation systems is a blunt, big picture approach that we need to stop using. Saying that less people are using cars means we need to shift away from their support is like saying more people are becoming obese and eating poorly, we need to shift toward a pro-fast food culture. We need to shift towards people's 'productive' wants and needs, not their possibly desired or desperate short or long term behaviour trends. We need to be more sophisticated than that. Much (but not all) of the data suggests that cars are a very important part of people's weekly if not everyday lives and we need to accept a multi-modal investment. What the data never seems to suggest is the increased productivity, wealth-generation, and economic growth potential of car users, car infrastructure, and a lifestyle which includes cars. These studies always seem to neglect personal and society-level economics and prosperity in their research. The ideal case is for everyone to purchase, maintain, and park a car but reduce use for everyday, regular commuting, and single-occupant purposes. The bottom line is that a family (however you define that, 1-7+ persons) is almost always more productive, flexible, and versatile with a car that is owned and immediately available, which usually translates to increased worth, quality of life, and self-actualization. The economy directly benefits and therefore can increase outlays to less productive (but vital) elements - environment, health, and social well-being. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that a highly-focussed transit culture increases overall incomes, job opportunities, consumption, technology take-up, overnight social events, away-from-home vacationing, home ownership, or other elements that many economists identify with a growing economy. All urban (non-rural) centres should have local and commuter, widespread, high-speed, high capacity, 24-7 transit systems, but ironically that is often only facilitated by a large tax base and moderate to high income residents, which is primarily made-up of highly educated, mobile, and productive citizens - almost exclusively those who have (but may not always use) cars. Need more transit? Don't neglect car culture and the wealthy taxpayers who are a vital component of that group - funny how it works that way.


It has been forty years since the 1973 oil embargo but Southern California still does not have adequate car pool databases, while people clog the freeways driving up to 50 miles each way to work from areas with more affordable housing.

Either we work together on this or we perish together. It is a simple matter of creating jobs where people want to live then building effective databases so people can conserve fuel, reduce stress and eliminate traffic though car pooling. 40 years after the first embargo, car pool lanes increase traffic congestion.


The real reasons for less miles driven (per capita) in many areas of USA is so evident that it is not even mentioned.

As 97% are relatively poorer and many more were unemployed and gas cost a lot more, the majority cannot afford to drive as much as they did in 2004.

Poorer people have no choice but to drive less and less, use lower cost public transport, share cars, use bikes or walk more.

With employment gaining speed (under 7% unemployed for the first time in 5 years or so), Americans will start (in 2014) buying more cars and drive more. However, the relative riches is getting worst month after month. Eventually, more and more Americans may have to walk or use public transport.

Bob Wallace

It may be the economy. But it may also be a cultural change.

Studies of young people of driving age find them not as interested in driving and owning cars. Many are not bothering to get their drivers license when they reach the minimum age.



I am probably wasting my time typing this as you seem to ignore most facts but Bob Wallace's comment is much more to the point. I know first hand from having a son that was much more interested in other technology. He has a car and drives but owning a vehicle was not a priority.

When I moved to Utah 30 years ago, there were very few bicyclists. Now it is commonplace and we now have many streets with bicycle lanes. we also have more public transit including commuter rail. Anyway, I would be much more inclined to believe that it is a cultural change rather than an economic necessity.


Hope that BW and sd are correct.

However, I would like to see the stats, in one or two years from now, or whenever the economy has definitely turned around.

Another question, will lower cost electrified vehicles and more efficient smaller ICEVs have a negative or positive effect on miles travelled per capita?

We may have to wait till end of 2015/2016 for the answer.


Another major reason why the per capita miles travelled is going down may be demographics.

In many places, the percentage of retired older people is going up rapidly. Retired people use their private car a lot (-30% to -50%) less and often use one car instead of two. Many retired people stop driving in the last 5 to 8 years of their medically extended life.



That's exactly what Bob tried to explain. Baby Boomers are retiring and/or dying. They were the "car" generation.

Younger Americans (who are now in their prime working years) are much less car-obsessed.

It's not a reversible trend. Baby boomers won't get young again, and Gen-X/Y/Z (or whatever letter we're at) won't start getting their licences at a higher rate. Almost every boomer wanted a car the day they turned 16. Today's 16-year olds mostly don't care about that (they care about other things). They may wait another 10-15 years before owning a car.

Bob Wallace

This is anecdotal but I suspect it has some validity.

I'm a year or two older than the boomers. When I was young (and the boomers young) the US was much more a rural nation along with a lot of people living in small towns. Cars meant freedom. Freedom to get away from ones house and spend time with friends.

We worked and scraped to be able to afford some sort of car and we spent a good deal of time patching up the junkers we could afford. It was that, or stay home.

Now we're an urban/suburban nation. Friends are in easy walk/bike/skateboard distance.

I still live a (very) rural life. My lifestyle would be impossible without a car. But when I'm in Europe, Asia or South America where interesting things are close by and public transportation readily available I never rent a car. Why would one want to pay the extra, deal with traffic and finding ones way around, and looking for parking places when you can hop on the bus/train/Metro?


I think the brainwash is less effective on the younger generations. The car industry depends heavily on advertisements and the gullibility of the american people. No one has ever needed the expensive and useless hunks of crap that the car companies make. You have to be an idiot to believe that a specific car will bring true happiness, and while many people are still dumb enough to fall for the marketing ploys, many are not and more are learning not to be susceptible. I think this is aided by the fact that the younger generations actually are more intelligent than boomers or older people. Probably aided by the lower than traditional pollution levels we have relative to the past, in particular the lower amount of lead poisoning that we now have since lead was taken out of fuel. Lead was known to significant affect the brain development of children. Not to mention other pollutants that also cause brain retardation. But hey, don't worry, many people like the decreased blood flow that breathing and ingestion of poisons cause their brain to experience and they will expose themselves intentionally so, there will still be some morons around for the managers and politicians to manipulate to make their careers as great leaders

Bob Wallace

"You have to be an idiot to believe that a specific car will bring true happiness"

Ah, you never drove mountain roads in my RX-7. That was pure joy.

"I think this is aided by the fact that the younger generations actually are more intelligent than boomers or older people."

Our was a different world. We were wise enough to live before the planet got really crowded.

And we had really, really good music....


More words of wisdom from Bob Wallace.

Anyway, here is some more information from research into the facts

Last week, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released a new report highlighting a transition away from the car and toward public transportation in 100 of the nation's largest cities.

According to the report, from 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per U.S. resident fell in nearly 75 percent of the nation's largest urbanized areas, while most urbanized areas saw increases in public transportation use and bicycle commuting. As well, researchers found that the share of households owning a car has actually decreased.

The Numbers include the following:

The proportion of workers commuting by private vehicle – either alone or in a carpool – declined in 99 out of 100 of the largest urbanized areas in the United States between 2000 and 2011.

The proportion of residents working from home has increased in 100 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas since 2000.

The proportion of household without cars increased in 84 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas from 2006 to 2011.

The proportion of households with two cars or more decreased in 86 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas.

While this data is intriguing, it does beg one question: why the change?

Researchers give a number of reasons for this including

After decades of increase, the number of vehicles per licensed driver has declined by four percent since 2006, suggesting that Americans may have reached a limit on the number of vehicles for which they have a need.

After peaking in 1992, the percent of driving-age Americans holding licenses has stagnated and then declined. By 2011, 86 percent of driving-age Americans held licenses. This is the lowest percentage in thirty years.

Americans may also be hitting their limit on the amount of time they're willing to spend in their cars each day. And unless travel speeds increase – which they haven't since the 1990s – they may be hitting their limit on the number of miles they're willing to drive each day.

Another interesting finding shows that the share of Americans in the labor force has dropped from a peak of 67.3 percent in 2000 to 63.2 percent – the lowest level since 1978.

Bob Wallace

How about the idea that driving is no longer as much fun?

There used to be lots of uncrowded roads and no radar.

I'm not saying that driving fast was safe. I've lost friends along the way. But barreling down an empty road with the radio cranked up loud was something easier to do 'way back then'.

And, how about the idea that driving around America is not as interesting as it once was?

It's McTown after McTown.

Perhaps people are flying to resorts and more exotic destinations rather than putting a few thou on their cars taking road trips.

I'd guess there are a number of factors eating away at our driving totals.


Are we facing a change in 'need' or a change in 'affordability' or both?

With only 63.2% instead of 67.3% i.e. 4.1% less Americans are in the labor force, one could say a change in 'need' has happened.

On the other hand, the number of 24/25 year old still living with their parents has gone up by almost 200% in the last 8 years or so. One could say that if young people can no longer afford to rent or buy their own nest, they have an 'affordability' problem.

With both a reduced 'need' and a more acute 'affordability' problem, Americans have purchased fewer cars and are driving less per capita.

How long will those two combining effects last? It could last a few more years or until such times as ways have been found to effectively return a significant part of the accumulated wealth into job creating economy.

Delaying retirement to 69 or 70 years of age could increase national total productivity and increase miles travelled per capita but another 10 to 15 million jobs would have to be created. Otherwise, the effect on jobs for younger people could be disastrous.

Accelerated electrification of ground transportation (vehicles and trains) together with the installation of essential infrastructure may keep 10 Million people busy for 20+ years.

Bob Wallace

I suspect we're going to see a decrease in the cost of owning and driving cars going forward.

I am assuming a ~200 mile range capacity EV battery.

If that happens then we should see the cost of cars dropping below that of ICEVs. Batteries, produced in huge numbers, should be cheaper than ICEs.

Cost per mile will drop significantly. Both fuel and maintenance.

Car lifespan will increase. A fresh not-expensive battery will turn a 120k, 150k EV into a fresh machine. As people buy new cars simply because they want a later model we will see more very usable used cars available for reasonable prices.

Fresh battery, "$99" paint job, set of seat covers/carpets and people with lower means should be able to buy reliable and quite serviceable vehicles.

We get self driving EVs and I suspect some people will move back off public transportation. If the time penalty is not extreme or if one can get work credit for in-car work.


Yes BW...those are all potential possibilities by 2020 or shortly thereafter?

Much lighter future extended range electrified vehicles, 3 or 4 wheelers, with various degree of autonomous driving capabilities may make driving around much cheaper again?

Will that increase per capita miles travelled?


Very recent stats confirmed that all four factors have gone up by about 4+%:

1. the economy
2. new car sales
3. number of jobs.
4. per capita miles travelled.

If the trend keeps on for 2 more quarters, one could say that a very close relationship exist between the four factors and that Americans will buy more cars and use them more if they work and can afford to do so.


If the $15+T that the 3% have hidden into tax heavens were returned to USA, taxed at 30% and directly or indirectly returned to the 97%, the economy, jobs, car sales and per capita miles travelled would go up at a very fast rate.

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