Brookings Report Concludes US Drop in VMT Signals a Permanent Shift Away from Cars; Implications for Transportation Policy
|US VMT per capita, annualized and real gasoline pump prices, Jan 1991–Sep 2008. Click to enlarge. Source: Puentes and Tomer|
The US is experiencing its longest and steepest drop in driving, signaling a permanent shift away from reliance on the car to other modes of transportation, according to a new Brookings Institution report. This shift will have far reaching implications for transportation, environmental, energy, and land-use planning, the authors said.
The report—The Road…Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the US—shows that national vehicle miles traveled (VMT), began to plateau as far back as 2004 and dropped in 2007 for the first time since 1980. Per capita driving followed a similar pattern, with flat-lining growth after 2000 and falling rates since 2005. These recent declines in driving predated the steady hikes in gas prices during 2007 and 2008.
Moreover, the recent drops in VMT (90 billion miles) and VMT per capita (388 miles) are the largest annualized drops since World War II.
Even though gasoline prices declined sharply from September through October, drivers didn’t get back in their cars. With important conversations underway on infrastructure spending as economic stimulus, it’s critical for the new Congress and administration to recognize the long-term implications of these travel trends and to use this as an occasion to put forth a new vision that reflects new realities and is not just more of the same.—Robert Puentes, co-author, fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings
From October 2007 to September 2008, Americans drove 90 billion fewer miles than the same time period the year before. For the first time in US history, the amount of roadway available to drivers is outpacing the number of miles actually driven. Transit use is at its highest level since the 1950’s, and Amtrak just set a ridership record this year.
|“The American driver has hit a wall. We are now driving the same distance per year as we did in 1998.”|
While total driving in both rural and urban areas grew between January 1991 and September 2008, rural and urban VMT have been declining since 2004 and 2007, respectively. Amongst these collective driving declines, the nation shifted more of its VMT share to larger capacity, urban roadways.
The Brookings report identifies a variety of factors as responsible for the decline in driving:
- Market saturation of vehicle ownership;
- A plateau in the number of women entering the workforce;
- A possible ceiling in the amount of driving any one individual can tolerate;
- Increased ridership on mass transit;
- The development of commercial centers closer to home; and
- Rising unemployment.
Fewer drivers on the road have brought revenues from the gas tax, the primary source of funding for transportation projects, to all-time lows.
Our ending love affair with the car has tremendous implications for transportation policy. As gas tax receipts plummet, we will have to get smarter about how we spend our transportation dollars. We cannot afford to build more roads that people simply will not use. We run the very real risk of severely misallocating scarce resources.—Adie Tomer, co-author
|Annualized change in VMT, by state, December 2006 to September 2008. Click to enlarge. Source: Puentes and Tomer|
The report also presents a survey which ranks all 50 states and the nation’s 100 largest metro areas for their “driving footprint” and shows who drives the most, who drives the least, and where driving is declining the fastest.
Southeastern and Intermountain West states experienced the largest growth rates in driving between 1991 and 2006, while the Great Lakes, Northeastern, and Pacific states grew at a slower pace. These varied, but positive, growth rates reversed after 2006, as 45 states produced less annualized VMT in September 2008. Similarly, per capita driving declined in 48 states since the end of 2006.
Total driving on principal arterials is concentrated in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, but the greatest driving per person occurs in low density Southeastern and Southwestern metros. In addition, the 100 largest metros’ urban driving share exceeds the national share, with 83 metros carrying more than 70% of their principal arterial traffic on urban roadways.
To address the fiscal impact of reduced gas tax revenue resulting from the drop in VMT, the report calls on Congress and state legislatures to raise the federal gas tax in the short-term and repeal the gas guzzler tax exemption for SUVs and light trucks to increase revenues. It also suggests that policymakers consider other revenue streams that reflect changes in travel patterns, such as a carbon tax.
Other recommendations include creating new federal mechanisms to spark innovation in places that want to link disparate transportation, housing, energy and environmental policies to create better outcomes. New grants could be awarded to promote sustainable development patterns or reduce carbon emissions.
Financially, reduced driving will only intensify the federal and state governments’ need to seriously reconsider their current reliance on the gas tax to fund surface transportation. Environmentally, stalled or reduced driving should offer a positive development in the creation of a more environmentally-sustainable transportation network. Developmentally, reduced driving demand will instinctively lead to more demand for development less reliant on the automobile and could signal a continued reinvigoration of this nation’s cities and inner suburbs.
The synthesis of these travel trends, their significant implications, and the heightened interest in rethinking federal infrastructure policy create a unique moment. With important conversations underway about infrastructure spending as economic stimulus, the reauthorization of the current federal transportation law, and other legislative priorities like climate change and energy looming, our nation’s policy opportunities are unprecedented.—Puentes and Tomer
Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer (2008) The Road…Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the US