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SEE IT: How Much (Or How Little) Driving is Going on in America’s Top Metros

Check it out: The lowest-mileage region isn't the one you'd think.

The amount that average Americans drive every day has either plateaued or is still declining in roughly half of the 100 largest metro areas, new data finds — and some of the regions with the lowest mileage per person aren’t where you might expect.

Between June 2022 and May 2023, residents of the Silicon Valley hub around San Jose had the lowest average daily vehicle miles traveled per person at just 12.43 miles per day, clocking roughly one-third fewer miles than the second-lowest metro, Seattle, whose residents drove 16.43. Contrary to its Motor City reputation, the region around Detroit came in a close third at 16.49 miles, followed by the greater Los Angeles suburbs around Ventura, and the region around Buffalo, both of which averaged around 18.5 miles per day.

Metro New York City, which would probably be many Americans' first guess to top the list of lowest-mileage areas, came in sixth with 19.73 average daily miles, though "metro" New York City includes the very car-dependent suburbs to the west, north and east. 

It's all in the chart below, created with data from Streetlight Data (scroll to find your region):

New York's numbers look a little less surprising in the context of how the city's VMT trends are changing over time; the Big Apple's average daily mileage fell an impressive 10 percent during the study period, and are poised to drop even more as its congestion pricing plan begins in June. Metro Baltimore, though, reported an even steeper driving drop-off, clocking 12.2 percent fewer miles per person in May 2023 than it did in June 2022, and the tri-state hub near New Haven, Conn. logged 11 percent fewer.

Of course, not all American communities are cutting down on driving. Residents of the neighboring border cities of Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa drove a nation-leading 43.23 miles per day, which was 4.5 percent more than the year prior; people in El Paso, meanwhile, drove a staggering 25.1 percent more, climbing to 31.6 average daily miles.

Now, none of those stats are official government numbers; they were sourced by mobility analysts at Streetlight Data, which compiles anonymized travel information from millions of cell phones, connected vehicles, connected infrastructure, and other sources that the company verifies against traditional traffic counters and surveys and runs through a proprietary algorithm. Still, they offer a rare and thought-provoking glimpse into which cities are on a path to reduce VMT to levels that experts say is essential to confront climate change and car dependency — and which are headed in the wrong direction. 

“It’s somewhat nice to see that some contraction [in VMT] is still happening; the narrative for so long has been that VMT growing, and we’re just going to keep moving up and up,” Emily Adler, Streetlight's director of content.  “But then some of the growth numbers were pretty sobering, too.”   

Those "sobering" numbers include El Paso, Texas, whose driving spiked 25.13 percent in a single year, and metro Las Vegas, which soared 19.37 percent. Tucson, AZ wasn't far behind, with a 16.51 percent increase.

Still: Adler stresses that raw data alone can't tell the story of why a region's travel patterns are changing — or whether they're result of deliberate policy decisions that other communities can or should replicate.

In poorer, car-dependent communities, for instance, a drop in per-capita driving might correlate with plummeting mobility or rising poverty, rather than residents shifting onto greener modes that still get them where they're going. In wealthy communities with high concentrations of knowledge workers, meanwhile, a cut to VMT might be a natural consequence of more people working from home post-COVID, though it's not clear why other communities with high rates of remote work are experiencing VMT plateaus as commuters replace the daily schlep to the office with a flurry of midday errands.

“Let’s be honest; we’re still seeing big changes coming out of the pandemic,” added Adler. “Work-from-home, population change, decreases in density; I think all of those things are going to play a role. We haven’t gotten to that flattening-out point, and we’re still seeing waiting to see how things are going to fall out.”  

As that fallout continues, Adler hopes that more granular mobility data will encourage policymakers to think holistically about what's driving their VMT trends — and what environmental and societal benefits they might reap if they implement more equitable strategies to reduce it.

“I think it’s really important to be thinking about VMT from a climate standpoint, rather than just focusing on economics, which is how we tend to talk about it," she adds. "Cities have all these levers to do better on emissions, while also making sure their residents are still economically empowered and getting to their destinations successfully. You need to really have that 360 degree picture.”

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