SSTI to Transport Officials: Start Planning for a Future With Less Driving

For a long time in the United States, driving activity moved in step with the economy. Since economic growth was fairly steady, consistent growth in driving was built into all the traffic modeling the engineers used to plan and build streets and transportation infrastructure.

Annual, per-capita vehicle miles traveled by Americans have been declining for eight years. Image: State Smart Transportation Campaign

But now per capita driving has declined eight straight years in America. Total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) hasn’t really budged in five years, and remains below its peak. A number of things have fundamentally changed since the time when you could chart driving behavior into the future using an upward line, according to a new paper by the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a think-tank based out of the University of Wisconsin which counts 19 state DOTs among its partners.

SSTI rejects the idea that driving declines reflect the recent recession, noting that the current slump began in 2004, well before the recession started. Driving activity actually began to decouple from economic growth in 2000, SSTI says, and today they do not appear to be strongly related.

The reasons for the current decline, SSTI reports, are broad cultural and economic trends that are likely to be “permanent,” or “remain in effect for a generation or more.”

In the decades prior, driving increases were triggered by factors like rising household income and auto ownership rates, increasing participation in the workforce by women, and the swelling ranks of Baby Boomers in their most active driving years. Today, however, those trends have abated or are moving in the opposite direction.

Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, and entering a stage in their lives when they will drive less and less. The American market for car owners is mostly saturated. Meanwhile, the growth in women’s workforce participation leveled off more than 10 years ago.

Another big factor is the financial calculus of driving. The cost of owning a car has been increasing, and not just because gas isn’t dirt cheap anymore. Maintaining, storing, and insuring a car has become more expensive too. High levels of congestion in many cities have also increased the delays and aggravation associated with driving.

Attitudinal shifts among younger Americans are playing a role. Mounting evidence suggests an increasing preference for transit, biking, and walking among the Millennial generation.

Finally, SSTI notes that for years driving was stimulated by policies that discouraged walkable, mixed-use development: single-use zoning and parking minimums, for example. But in some places, those policies are now being reformed.

The upshot is that driving may never increase the way it once did, SSTI reports. It’s important that public institutions adjust accordingly.

As the authors say, “these trends suggest a serious need for a new approach to travel demand forecasting and transportation system design in the 21st century.”

  • shammy shamla

    Also, restrictions on teen drivers have been piling on for years. At a certain point, it isn’t worth it for teenagers to get licenses, and then they get used to a car-free lifestyle.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Today, however, those trends have abated or are moving in the opposite direction.”

    Particularly the increases in household income part.

    The flood of women into the labor force, and the loss of future income in retirement, covered up the decrease in per worker pay for a couple of decades. From 2000 to 2008 only soaring debts allowed Americans to live in the style which the ad industry told them they were accustomed. But that whole unsustainable economy is on life support.

    Moreover, the reductions in well being have been greater generation by generation, starting with the back half of the baby boom. Something has to give.

  • Anonymous

    This is bad policy regardless of outcomes. Teens at age 16 should be allowed full licenses, as long as they pass driving tests that make sense.

  • Daniel

    Why? I’ve seen plenty of teens that are technically very capable of driving and hence would pass any test. But they do stupid things on purpose because teens are for the most part immature assholes. What’s wrong with setting the minimum driving age to 25? Set the beer drinking age at 14 and the hard-liquor drinking age at 16 for the gradually increasing responsibility curve; heck give them the vote early if they can tell you about major events in the news in the preceeding year, but don’t hand them a 3 ton weapon until they are good and ready.

    Note: I do think they should be able to drive whatever they want at any age on closed courses and private property.

  • Anonymous

    25? Are you crazy? This is well past any adulthood threshold.

    I also think the discussion about alcohol should be unrelated to that of driving. People with anything but marginal (0.02% BAC) alcohol ingestion shouldn’t drive, whatever their age, period.

    Responsible teens shouldn’t be punished without the right to drive at age 16 or 17 (let alone anything above 18???) because some of their peers behave irresponsibly.

    Now I support far more comprehensive driving tests that really measure aptitude of teens to drive cars (or, for that matter, private airplanes, boats, jet skis) than those we have today. But 15 should be the minimum age below which people are allowed to take a comprehensive driving test and, if they pass, get a license that allows them to operate any private car or any public road at any time (so the driving test would measure things like ability to drive on snow).

    I actually think driver ed has a lot of problems, it is often unrealistic, and, what is absurd, let to people who have no teaching experience like parents or siblings or friends. Driving ed should be a professional field with qualified instructors, some good time spend on simulators before getting anywhere behind a real vehicle etc.

    However, ageism shouldn’t be in the way of those teens who are responsible, whose parents can get insurance (which would be less expensive if teens could prove they know how to drive) and who have access to vehicles at age 15 upwards. If one is concerned about about, then put something like compulsory “driving recording devices” on all vehicles that could be accessed by authorities upon an accident to investigate facts.

    EVERYTHING is wrong is setting the minimum driving age at 25. It would shut down most jobs, opportunities to travel alone and what not for young adults. Only sadistic people who think youngsters ought to suffer and “wait for their time in line” would support that, or those who think young adults should be made suffer so that they make choices people on urban planning sites dare to think they should (like get used to live car-free).

  • pmd

    Vehicle miles traveled is not something the US measures very well. It’s left up to each state to measure it’s own VMT, many doing a poor job. Also since it’s tied to federal money, there’s reason for bias in the numbers given.

  • calwatch

    I wonder if a shift to less driving is addressed by more travel elsewhere, through air and rail travel to further destinations, not just road travel. There are a lot of teens and people in their 20’s who instead of hanging out with local friends can now easily meet people online or keep in touch with old schoolmates and summer friends by flying or taking the train. Rather than VMT we might want to look at total miles traveled, since commercial air travel emits more CO2 per mile than driving alone, and cheap plane tickets allow for someone to travel 6,000 miles without losing a night’s sleep.

  • Joe Foerster

    We’ve gone from driving 40 miles a day to work to telecommuting most days. We’ve gone from driving to the grocery store, department store, drug store, etc, to ordering online and getting everything from groceries to clothing and pharmaceuticals delivered. We don’t go to the video store, we stream. No wonder driving has declined. Too bad there are still the same number of bad drivers out there when I do drive. 😉

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