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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.”
—Robert Puentes

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




Another questionable report of little apparent value. Infrastructure will be financed by energy use taxes as it has always been. The energy type will change - the demand to tax its use will not.

Franklin E. Fraitus

Of course the miles traveled decreased. Fuel prices tripled. Just what did they expect. I'll bet with the current lower fuel prices, VMT picks up again, as long as people remain employed.

There is no significant or permanent shift in patterns of travel. Just economic reality.


"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."

They don't rely on gas taxes to pay for all the roads, never have. Most of the money comes from property taxes. What they should do is raise gas taxes to accelerate the change away from driving. Don't get me wrong here; I love to drive, I just don't think we should drive for every piddling little reason that comes into our heads.

The article clearly points out the decline in VMT started BEFORE the steady raise in gas prices.


I believe one reason auto usage has fallen is because the price of automobiles has increased while the wages of the middle class have dropped. Also, people living in cities have started to see the light. Commuting in heavy stop and slow traffic makes little sense as long as good public transportation is provided. A good example is the Bay Area Rapid Transportation(BART) system which after years of stagnant growth have finally secured the rights to expand rider ship to San Jose. This in effect ties the San Jose light rail system to BART and should provide a good alternative to driving between San Jose and San Francisco.

Now after fifty years, maybe the oil companies and automobile lobbies won't be running our Federal Government; and, with well-thought out plans and federal assistance perhaps all our large cities will have a chance to provide safe, fast mass transportation to their people. It might be like it use to be in the forties before Big Oil and Big Auto bought up the transit systems to push people into automobiles and onto freeways.

Seems like we've been going down the wrong path for a hundred years and we are going back to start all over again this time going the right way with electric transportation. Just think where we might be today had we chosen battery driven cars in the early 1900s instead of petroautos. Surely taking our need for gross amounts of oil out of the equations might have resulted in less of our people dying in wars...but, alas we'll never know!


took the words out of my mouth Lad


Improved e-communications (more interactive video conference calls etc) + increased Internet purchases + paper less banking + direct e-payments + films e-downloads + music e-downloads + home working + multiple information e-access + food & meals delivery and many other activities are progressively being done using less or any ground transport.

In many places, a single school bus replaces up to 30 individual (moms) vehicles.

More affordable but comfortable suburban trains, city subways and inter-city electric high speed passenger trains could reduce the use of private vehicles on our highways and city streets.

Much more remains to be done to unjam our city streets and roads.


It goes beyond gas prices and availability of mass transit. People no longer love their cars or driving them. The younger generation (and some older) are more intent on talking on the cell phone or texting than on driving. Packed roads, traffic jams, 20 mile an hour commutes, and road rage have taken the fun out of driving. Let someone else drive while we focus on work. It is a whole culture change that has gone unnoticed.

Ross Nicholson

G.P.S. The widespread adoption and use of Global Positioning Satellite systems over the interval described, with diminished incomes relative to all vehicle costs, accounts for the described phenomena of reduced total vehicular miles traveled. More of the road network is being exploited. Why? Fewer Americans drive around lost.


I see everyone is too clueless to see the real reason.


As pc and console gaming grew it consumed more and more time and left less time and less interest in going places for fun and leasure.

Instead of going to some festering turist trap of vastly overprices garbage filled with idiots and snot nosed vermin your not allowed to smack much less KILL as you so wish you could... you instead play in the comfort of your gaming room surrounded by sound and softdrinks and hotpockets...

For the cost of a single annoying smelly pain in the arse "vacation" to HELL.. you can buy 3 gaming consoles or a hot gaming rig and every game you could play for the next 2 years... And SLEEP IN YOUR OWN DANG BED!

In a nation of jackasses the best vacation of all is locking the door and turning up the volume on fallout 3.

Flee DC


This is such FANTASTIC news! I'll have more room on the freeway for my HUGE SUV, antique, noxious gas spewing, 1969 Firebird (Oh! the eyes burn when behind it...), and 50mpg, soot spewing, diesel VW Rabbit pickup.




You've got a good point.

Available time may be a good reason.

I spent 4+ hours on 125 Km snowy highways & streets today. A virtual doctor's visit would be much easier during snow storms.

We will move 55 Km closer next spring.

Andrey Levin

The thing to remember is that no exponential process or trend could last for long. Once railways were expanding at exponential rate, then population, energy consumption per capita, vehicles per capita, CO2 emissions per capita, roads, computing power of chips, miles traveled and flown, consumption of meat, average age, price of college education, national debt, you name it.

For every exponential process there is a limit. However, fraudsters calling themselves scientists regularly project exponential growth into the future and report sensational results, and I am talking not only about Hansen or Al Gore.

Max Reid

Its good news. People are doing carpooling, using public transport, thats why VMT has gone down.
Also the size of the vehicles should come down.

Private car usage is not as cheap as we think, we have a masssive 10 trillion $ + national debt and vehicles are the big contributor for this.


I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at


The Institute producing this report has a curious background. Let's hope that its conclusions do not cause exaggerated reactions - the way some of its reports have.

The issue at hand is also influenced by the transfer of energy type. Simply putting people on buses does not necessarily lower petroleum consumption or cost of transport (it's cheaper to drive right now) or damage to infrastructure. It also takes nearly twice as long to commute via mass transit (depending on locale) which lowers man-hour efficiency, earnings and disposable income.

So, the VMT issue is a reflection of market influence - which does change dramatically and regularly.

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