2013: Another Year of Falling Per-Capita Driving in U.S.

This post was originally published on the blog of the Frontier Group, where the author is a senior policy analyst.

The number of miles driven in the United States continues to stagnate, even amidst economic recovery, according to just-released figures from the Federal Highway Administration.

Left behind. Photo: ##http://www.escapeartistes.com/2011/09/17/work-is-work-wherever-you-are/##Escape Artistes##
Photo: ##http://www.escapeartistes.com/2011/09/17/work-is-work-wherever-you-are/##Escape Artistes##

According to the agency’s December 2013 Traffic Volume Trends report, the number of vehicle-miles traveled on U.S. highways increased last year by approximately 0.6 percent – a rate of increase a tick slower than the 0.7 percent rate of population growth in the United States during 2013.

To put this in the context of longer-term trends:

  • The total number of vehicle-miles traveled in the U.S. remains about 2 percent below its 2007 peak. The number of miles driven in 2013 was lower than that of the 12-month period ending February 2005 – a nearly nine-year period of stagnation in total vehicle travel unprecedented in modern U.S. history.
  • The average number of vehicle-miles traveled per capita in 2013 was about 7 percent below its 2004 peak and was the lowest since 1996 – a roughly 17-year span of stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel.

Looking forward, continued stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel would have major implications for public policy:

  • Growth in traffic volumes would be insufficient to justify highway expansion projects in all but the fastest-growing areas.
  • Congestion in most areas would grow only slowly, and could largely be addressed through measures to improve the efficiency of the current transportation system (including by expanding access to public transportation and through the use of information technology and possibly pricing), rather than through costly capacity additions.
  • Revenue from fuel taxes would continue to decline as increases in driving fail to make up for improvements in vehicle fuel economy (and for the impacts of inflation in places where gasoline taxes are not indexed).
  • Increasing highway “user fees” – gas taxes, tolls, VMT fees – to recover that lost revenue would likely further depress vehicle travel by increasing the cost of driving.

With Congress on the hook for reauthorizing the nation’s transportation law this year – and with the Highway Trust Fund only months away from going broke – the latest evidence of continued stagnation in driving demands that our nation’s leaders plot a different course for our transportation future that recognizes changing trends in how Americans travel and focuses scarce resources on addressing America’s 21st century transportation priorities.

  • Larry Littlefield

    From Bloomberg News.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-24/woes-of-megacity-driving-signals-dawn-of-peak-car-era.html

    “In the globe’s growing megacities, pollution and gridlock are putting a damper on driving. In India, some commuters are leaving their cars at home to avoid traffic snarls and long prowls for parking. More young Americans are forgoing the dream of auto ownership for public transport, bikes and vehicle-sharing. Cars on the road are lasting longer than ever.”

    “All of that may herald a new era for an auto industry weaned on a century of global growth. The world will reach “Peak Car” — a point at which annual global sales growth will top out — in the next decade, several auto-industry analysts predict. Researcher IHS Automotive, for one, sees annual sales cresting at 100 million within that time.”

  • Dave Weckl

    Peak Car is about as believe able as Peak Oil.

    If VMT continues to increase (slightly) but Per Capita VMT decrease (slightly) is this really a tectonic shift in mode usage or a flattening out of the S curve of auto deployment/usage? Should we start to find alternatives to air travel because passenger demand has increased less than predicted? Should we fund more trains to move people across the US rather than continuing to maintain the air transport system?

  • Citizen

    The government already makes large transfers of money from sources other than gas/vehicle taxes to fund the Highway Trust Fund. The Fund might “go broke” but isn’t that just a paper event? Non-driver revenue already pays for a lot of the costs of highways, roads and bridges in the U.S. That will continue to be the case whether or not the HTF is officially declared to be broke.

    I suppose one effect could be to wake up more people to the fact that gas and vehicle taxes don’t actually cover the entire costs of road/bridge construction and maintenance. Many people continue to believe that such taxes pay for 100% of those costs. That’s why many think that cyclists don’t belong on roads, because they “don’t pay for the roads.” Actually, anyone who pays income or sales tax does contribute to the construction and maintenance of those facilities. At the same time, cyclists do not cause the damage to infrastructure that cars and heavy trucks do.

  • Ben Schiendelman

    We should fund electric trains to move people around regional hubs for sure; they emit less CO2 than air travel, and a lot less if we also build more renewable power generation.

  • p_chazz

    There may be an economic recovery, but it’s the weakest recovery since WW2, and the labor participation rate is at its lowest level since the Carter Administration. I am not convinced that this is the watershed moment the author seems to believe it is.

  • neroden

    There are several simultaneous factors.
    (1) Younger people really don’t want to be driving, because they can’t use their cellphones. This is well-documented, and it’s permanent. “Driverless” cars are not going be a plausible substitute because it’s an unsolvable technical problem. Unless they’re speed-limited to 20 mph.
    (2) 99% of the people in the US are getting poorer. Unfortunately, there are no signs of this trend reversing, as it’s been going on since 1980. The recession is largely a side-effect of this.
    (3) Gasoline is more expensive in real terms than it has been since 1918. THIS is going to kill driving…. unless everyone switches to electric cars, obviously, but they’re expensive still.

  • neroden

    Peak oil has already happened in the US (right on schedule when Hibbert predicted it) and is now happening worldwide.

    Peak car is gonna happen too, for the various reasons listed above.

    Peak air travel is also going to happen; I could go into the details, but the business hit several “walls” already and the killer is oil prices.

    We are nowhere near peak train travel, however. 🙂

  • Cycle One

    The single occupant driver. Would an airline continue business if it flew at a 20 to 25% capacity rate?

  • Eric Van Bezooijen

    “an unsolvable technical problem.” – Nissan has already announced they will be releasing one of these in 6 years. The google autonomous cars have driven 300,000 of accident free driving.

  • Thrig

    Assuming that the various technological kinks can be worked out, which they have not—Ray Kurzweil’s 2009 intelligent road prediction was a manifest failure—that still leaves various legal, cultural, policitcal, ethical, ecological, and economic hurdles to clear. Doubtless many of these costs will be swept under the rug, gifts to future generations, but hey! That’s how most Americans roll. For example: how will the roads be maintained? Oil prices are a little higher, and all the majors in year-over-year decline, having burnt trillions to find, well, nothing. Will society call that multiplier on road costs, or fold? Some communities in America have already reverted to gravel roads. Another example: what happens to the drivers? Ooops, hey, automation just culled another job category. Will society eat the cost of retraining them to be, ah, the “creative class,” or let them just circle the drain?

  • neroden

    *snort* I know about the Google autonomous cars. Largely worthless technology. Wouldn’t last a week in winter on rural roads in upstate NY. Like I said, unsolvable problem.

    There’s a nice article about this:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/520431/driverless-cars-are-further-away-than-you-think/

    Sure, they work on expressways… but expressways are unsustainable and inefficient, so who cares?

    The self-driving cars don’t work in the real-world conditions for which *cars are effective*. Think of a rural area with deer standing at the side of the road.

  • neroden

    Worth noting, we’re also very VERY far from peak communications. I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. It’s so cheap to move data, compared to moving people….

    For a long time people thought “telecommuting” was the future. Right now there’s some pushback, but on the whole, during the last decade I’m seeing telepresence become a serious day-to-day reality for the first time. Big big change.

  • Chris Koffend

    What a great article – topic: average miles driven per year.

    The problem is, the article never provides the number of average miles driven per year.

    And one wonders why the educated population’s opinion of the media is so low!

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