FHWA Gleefully Declares That Driving Is Up, Calls for More Highway Spending

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA's own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels. Image: ##http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/travel_monitoring/14juntvt/figure1.cfm##FHWA##
Despite the rhetoric, FHWA’s own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels — even if you’re just looking at total miles-driven. Chart: FHWA

Well, so much for the predictions that changing preferences and new technologies will lead to a car-free utopia. The Federal Highway Administration announced last week that after nine years of steady decline, vehicle-miles-traveled in the U.S. was 1.4 percent higher this June than last June. Apparently, red-blooded Americans everywhere are finally getting back to their Hummer habit after a few years of diminished driving and rising transit ridership and bike commuting.

Except one thing: Driving is still way down from peak levels. While the FHWA’s press release trumpets that “American driving between July 2013 and June 2014 is at levels not seen since 2008” — adding, alarmingly, a call for “greater investment in highways” — that’s not the whole story. Yes, the total driving rate now approximates where it stood in 2008, when VMT was in freefall. But it’s still way down from the peak — 3.05 trillion miles — in 2007.

Since the end of the recession, total VMT has fluctuated within a fairly constrained range, remaining well below the 2007 peak. And that’s just total driving. If you look at the per capita driving rate, it’s still dropping. In fact, it’s as low as it’s been in nearly 17 years.

In the FHWA press release, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx rejoiced, “More people driving means our economy is picking up speed.” But Foxx should know that although GDP and per capita VMT grew together for decades, they’ve uncoupled in recent years, especially as the economy recovered from the recession and driving rates kept dropping.

Foxx followed that dubious line with a push to “increase our investment in transportation” by passing the president’s $302 billion GROW AMERICA Act. But as Shane Phillips writes at Better Institutions, “their motivations are misguided”:

Although the bill is a positive step forward in the national transportation policy debate — emphasizing highway repair, transit investment, and increased local control of transportation funds — Americans should be skeptical of any suggestion that spending more money on accommodating cars will do anything to ease their commutes. We’ve been doing that for decades, and even though VMT has been stagnant and per-capita VMT has steadily and consistently declined, we’ve got virtually nothing to show for it.

Plus, as Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group said in an email: “If rising VMT, according to the FHWA, fuels ‘calls for greater investment in highways,’ then, by the same logic, falling VMT would result in reduced need for investment in highways. Right? Yet, I can’t recall FHWA ever making that argument. And we have continued to plow money into highway expansion over the last decade.”

Perhaps Doug Short of Investing.com put it best: “As we can readily see, the post-recession pattern suggests a structural change in our driving habits” — despite the FHWA’s gleeful declaration that Americans have returned to happy motoring.

  • Komanoff

    Yikes. Secretary Foxx’s statement that “More people driving means our economy is picking up speed” is incredibly lame. What would indicate an improving economy would be more people *working*. More driving could mean a range of things, including people having to travel further for work, etc.

  • ocschwar

    I think this story might shed some insight into why the number of vehicle miles might be rising:

    http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Parking-Lot-Death-Elizabeth-272846101.html

    A New Jersey woman struggling to make ends meet died in a sports utility vehicle parked outside a New Jersey Wawa store.

    Police
    said it appeared Maria Fernandes of Newark was trying to nap in her SUV
    parked at a Wawa convenience store parking lot on Spring Street in
    Elizabeth.

    Lt. Daniel Saulnier tells The Star-Ledger of Newark that she sounded like someone who tried her best to earn a living. The paper reported that she had four jobs.

  • Oregon Mamacita

    Where is the “glee”? Or is Ms. Snyder in need of a refresher course in basic journalism?

  • Keith Williams

    Pardon my ignorance: Is it normal for an agency within a federal department to issue a press release calling for legislative action? I’d think that should be coming from the secretary or the department as a whole.

    If you look at OSHA press releases, for example, they are factual statements spelling out what went wrong at X factory, not paeans to Congress. (OSHA is part of the Department of Labor.) This smacks of a “tail wagging the dog” situation.

  • Yeah USDOT does this a lot.

  • Biking in a skirt

    Traffic congestion is not a variable. It is a constant. It is supply and demand coming into equilibrium.

    The primary effect of creating more roads is not to reduce congestion but to increase the number of motor vehicles in the congestion.

  • BBnet3000

    It doesn’t really matter if VMT is up or down, especially nationwide (which doesnt tell you much about where there might be congestion or where new highways should or shouldnt be built).

    The problem here is that theyre using this to justify a nationwide spending binge on highways that will only induce more VMT.

  • JoshNY

    *sigh*… I feel like, as misleading as it is for the FHWA to make it out to be like there’s been a huge increase since last year, it seems also misleading of this post to make it seem like there’s been a massive dropoff. To me, I think the most optimistic (from a livable streets perspective) thing we can say is that VMT looks to be leveling out at a point that, though a bit below its peak in 2007, is still way, WAY higher than it was in 1990, when this chart begins. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve made more progress than we actually have.

  • Adam Herstein

    Rebutting a misleading graph with a misleading graph. Stay classy, Streetsblog.

  • Joe Linton

    How so?

  • Joe Linton

    I think it’s accurate to say that there has been a massive drop-off – especially compared to “predictions” or “projections.” Transportation professionals continue to predict major car traffic growth in Los Angeles, despite measured traffic being flat for about a decade. That’s massive! http://www.humantransit.org/2014/07/how-good-are-we-at-prediction.html

  • AlanTobey

    We would not be as amused if, for example, the Department of Food and Agriculture announced that “more people eating means the economy is picking up speed,” as measured by the national obesity rate. In both cases, we should know by now thst more consumption doesn’t usually add more health.

  • Joe Enoch

    Still, driving is increasing and the scary thing is that if there’s one thing many Americans agree on, it’s more highway spending — having a Transportation Secretary who agrees is frightening.

  • Guest

    You’re pardoned. It is normal.

  • Bolwerk

    The FRED graph is misleading? Only if you’re not savvy enough to read graphs.

  • scooterj2003

    Relative to their increasing use, highways have been underfunded by the federal government since the early 2000s. The basic problem here is that the highways (and particularly bridges) will continue to deteriorate if more funding is not approved and deferring maintenance will just end up costing more in the long-run. Ideally the government would target increased to projects that result in the most “bang for the buck”, which is what the CBO suggests. Even so, federal dollars account for about 25% of all funding for highways. So even more federal dollars is unlikely to really fix the problem.

  • Congratulations — that might be the first time the phrase “highways have been underfunded” has ever been uttered on Streetsblog! Repair and maintenance *are* underfunded, but that’s because state DOTs squander their money on new expansion. See: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2014/03/12/state-dots-let-roads-fall-apart-while-splurging-on-highway-expansion/

  • Bolwerk

    I agree about the squandering, but I have to also at least partly agree with scooter. Highways are underfunded, but the reason is that users are not expected to pay for their use.

    Presumably DOTs get a lot of earmarked money that needs to be either spent on new expansion or not be spent.

  • Prinzrob

    Exactly, it’s not necessarily “more people driving” but instead “people driving more”, being desparate for jobs and affordable housing. But an increase in miles driven and transportation costs without an equal or greater increase in wages earned is actually a net loss, once one figures in the fact that most car transportation expenses don’t stay in the local, or even the national, economy.

    I doubt this metric exists, but a national year-to-year “vehicle trips taken” stat would be interesting to use as a comparison.

  • lop

    With transit projects it’s my understanding that there is a disproportionately large federal pot available for expansion, and little available for operations and maintenance, which is supposed to be covered by local and state governments. Is it the same for highways? Maybe that should be changed so that the federal money can only be used for expansion if maintenance and operations of existing infrastructure is already well funded, or if the diversion isn’t required it could at least be permitted.

  • lop

    It’s a proxy. Is there reason to think that commute distance has increased dramatically over the last few years? ACS says 86% of workers drove to work, 76% drove alone.

    Also, more people are working. Employment is the highest it has been since 2008.

  • andrelot

    It is not the same with highways, money from the Highway Trust Fund can be used to maintain the existing infrastructure, and that has been the case for a very long time.

    The problem is that gas sales, in volume, peaked in 2001. Moreover, the gas tax hasn’t kept up with general inflation, let alone construction-specific cost inflation. So there is less money and more deferred maintenance.

    Expansion of highways is hardly done with HTF these days, they get $$ from other federal programs like bond guarantees or all sorts of economic development line-items.

  • JoshNY

    I get what you mean, I just feel like there’s been some “George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier in front of a Mission Accomplished banner” sort of prematurity here.

  • Joe Linton

    Nobody knows what the future will hold – so, yes, some humility is called for, even for us know-it-all livability bloggers. I will say, though, that I think that your Bush-Mission-Accomplished prematurity analogy applies more to the transportation professionals standing on their faulty models for the last 25 years. Looking back: nobody – really nobody (engineers, planners, advocates, demographers, livability bloggers, dreamers) – predicted the drop-off that we’ve seen for the last ~8 years. So, all those transportation professionals doing car-centric estimates were decidedly “premature” – in my all-knowing hindsight.

  • JoshNY

    Also true.

  • HonestTaxPolicy

    This new data pushes back against all those discounting an increase in the gas tax because driving habits have changed to the point of making the gas tax irrelevant. Although the miles driven/person is steadily decreasing, the total amount still ensure robust revenues from the gas tax. There needs to be an increase in the gas tax passed to maintain revenues for road construction while an alternative method is found. We can’t get rid of it before an alternative is found, so we should increase it with inflation and ensure that our highways don’t deteriorate.

  • The days of ever-increasing VMT are behind us. Let’s maintain what we’ve got and invest in increased safety and mobility.

  • Jack Binary

    See more info about this issue on topbinaryoptions.org

  • adamold

    Now what?