FHWA Gleefully Reports That Driving Is Rising Again

Chart: Doug Short
Chart: Doug Short

After flatlining for nearly a decade, the mileage driven by Americans is rising once again. That means more traffic overwhelming city streets, slowing down buses, and spewing pollutants into the air. But to the Federal Highway Administration, it’s a development to report with barely contained glee.

This June, Americans drove 8.7 billion more miles than last June, according to FHWA, a 3.5 percent increase. Total mileage in 2015 is on pace for a new high — finally “beating the previous record” of 1.5 trillion vehicle miles set 2007, the agency reports, as if the further entrenchment of America’s car-dependence is some sort of achievement.

Low gas prices, population growth, and an expanding economy are three factors nudging traffic back onto an upward trajectory, not to mention a transportation policy regime that remains tilted overwhelmingly toward highway construction.

The recent growth in traffic, however, does not negate lasting signs of a long-term shift away from driving. Economist Doug Short gets into more detail about the nuances in the trends, pointing out that on a per-capita basis, Americans are now driving about as much as we did in 1997.

Vehicle miles traveled, adjusted for population. Chart: Doug Short
Vehicle miles traveled, adjusted for population. Chart: Doug Short

Nevertheless, FHWA’s PR team seems eager to convince the world that nothing has changed — and that this is great news for America. The agency points out that this brings total miles driven to twice what they were in 1981, “continuing a trend of America’s driving mileage doubling nearly every generation.”

Based on the FHWA’s press release, you might think that the explicit goal of American transportation policy is simply to double traffic mileage again by 2050. The new numbers, the agency says, reaffirm “calls for increased investment in transportation infrastructure as demand on the nation’s highway system grows.”

Here’s a thought: Maybe the way to reduce strain on the nation’s highway system isn’t just to “increase investment,” but to adjust transportation spending priorities, so Americans can make more trips without having to get in a car.

This graph shows cumulative federal, state and local capital spending on highways transit and Rising rates of driving in the U.S. mirror spending priorities. Graph: Frontier Group
Cumulative federal, state, and local capital spending on highways and transit in the U.S. Graph: Frontier Group

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Federal Transportation Law Expired Over the Weekend: What’s Next?

|
A new month begins today without rules in place to govern federal transportation programs, thanks to an objection by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) to quick approval of a short-term extension of existing law. The Natchez Trace Parkway, where trail construction is set to stall today thanks to inaction on federal transport law. (Photo: TheFunTimesGuide.com) The […]

Americans Are Driving Less, But Road Expansion Is Accelerating

|
Americans drive fewer miles today than in 2005, but since that time the nation has built 317,000 lane-miles of new roads — or about 40,000 miles per year. Maybe that helps explain why America’s infrastructure is falling apart. The new data on road construction comes from the Federal Highway Administration and reached our attention via Tony Dutzik at the Frontier […]

The Fuzzy Math in the Road Lobby’s Memo to Congress

|
Don’t know what to make of the news that U.S. driving rates have dropped for the ninth year in a row? Looking for guidance about whether your state or city should be wantonly expanding roads or investing in transit, biking, and walking? The road lobby thinks you should turn to them for independent, unbiased analysis […]