Putting the Recent Uptick in Driving in Perspective

Driving is on its way up again after a decade of stagnation, but it's still not what it was. Graph: Federal Highway Administration
Total driving mileage has risen recently after a decade of stagnation but remains below its 2007 peak. Graph: Federal Highway Administration

With gas prices plummeting and employment figures rising, America’s per capita driving rate increased in 2014 for the first time in nearly a decade. But experts warn driving is far from back to its previous historical pattern.

According to new data from the Federal Highway Administration, total driving mileage climbed 1.7 percent in 2014, higher than the rate of population growth. Gas prices are likely a major factor. In the first half of 2014, driving rose only about 0.8 percent, about the rate of population growth, compared to the same period in 2013. But during the second half of the year, as gas prices dropped substantially, total miles driven shot up 2.5 percent.

Phineas Baxandall, a researcher with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says the increase needs to be put in perspective: This doesn’t look like a return to historical driving trends. Prior to about 2005, traffic rose at a fairly steady rate, with some fluctuation around recessions. But this latest increase doesn’t signal a return to that path of constant growth — the kind that has been continually used to justify highway projects.

“This past year saw big increases in employment and a precipitous dip in gasoline prices, yet the rate of increase in driving was still smaller than the normal increases for six decades before 2005,” Baxandall said in a statement. “The total volume of driving in 2014 still fell below 2007 levels, even despite the nation’s larger population.”

Of course, policy makers could also act to spare Americans from the burden of increasing traffic, congestion, and emissions. “The volume of driving could be even lower if public policies in coming years give Americans more choices about whether or not to drive,” Baxandall added. “We hope that this past year’s data does not distract public leaders from the profound changes underway in transportation.”

  • douglasawillinger

    What happens with future technologies as lower cost fuels from synthesizers, improved electrics, particularly with something as a Rossi Reactor?

    Back during the 1970s there were those arguing against freeways because we were going to run out of petro by the 1990s thus rendering the very concept of private automobiles obsolete:

    http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2009/04/doctrinaire-anti-new-highways-position.html

  • The national and state data is helpful, but limited. Does it look different in different metros? Which ones and why? What role does freight play?

  • AndreL

    Either way, the argument needs coherence.

    If a couple years trend reversal is not an indication of things to come for many years ahead, then you can’t either do that for the current uptick and you couldn’t have done it for the downturn in 2009-2013.

    But Streetsblog took the post-2008 downturn to claim all sorts of historical changes, milestones that would be looked far in the future, and evidence that any prediction of traffic growth anywhere were moot. Now, Streetsblog cannot go there and claim, over the same time-series, that things need to be put in perspective.

    I mean, they can claim that, but sounds outright manipulation of any argument and the ultimate cherry-picking.

    Several commentators here in Streetsblog argued and pointed about the inappropriateness of making outrageous and overreaching claims about “death of driving culture” based on a few year’s data…

  • Driving in the US is here to stay. Public transportation and bikes are not really very significant, except in a few big cities. That may be a bitter pill for Streetsblog’s readers to swallow, but that’s the reality.

  • AlexxM

    Driving is here to say, but there’s nothing that says it will be the dominant mode share in the future. The car will not always be king—it’s that simple. Public transportation and bikes are coming back in a big way and will be serious competitors for cars as a travel mode in 21st century America, and that’s the reality.

  • Rich

    They were right to argue against highway expansion. Fortunately, the overexpansion of interstates was stopped and we started to move ever so slightly away from the autocentric model of transportation. Our cities today are more livable because of this. Washington D.C. is a very good example. Bad ideas like the I-90 extension through Washington D.C. and I-266 were scuttled and the money put to Metro instead. Downtown D.C. is more vibrant because of this, not to mention all the neighbors saved due to the highway non-expansion.

  • douglasawillinger

    I-90 was never planned to go anywhere near Washington, D.C.

    You apparently know very little about the Washington DC planning and how it was manipulated simply to keep necessary highways away from key Roman Catholic Church properties.

    Your arguments may apply to the earlier highway designs from the 1950s, but are non applicable to the later plans in general.

    http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2014/09/getting-over.html

    http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2012/01/crafted-controversy-scuttling-of-jfks-b.html

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