Vehicle Travel, Rising and Falling

Federal data shows a short-term uptick---but a longer-term slide.
This post is 25 in the series: Dude, Where Are My Cars?

New data from the Federal Highway Administration suggests that US vehicle travel rose in February—the third straight month of year-over-year increases. That comes as a bit of a surprise, given how high gas prices have been of late.

But there’s a hitch: last month the FHWA also revised its vehicle travel figures for the past few years. The revisions weren’t huge…but they were all downward. The graph below, cobbled together from two different FHWA charts, shows the December 2011 vs. January 2012 estimates of vehicle travel trends in the US.

So according to the new figures, total vehicle travel in the US has fallen back to where it was in mid-2004—and is actually lower than it was in mid-2008, when gas prices spiked and the economy fell through the floor. As I recall, after gas prices fell in 2008 and 2009, some commentators looked at the uptick in vehicle travel that FHWA was reporting, and predicted that car travel would resume its meteoric rise.  Perhaps it will…someday.  But a closer look at the numbers must have convinced FHWA analysts that the post-crash traffic rebound was just a mirage.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that vehicle travel is permanently stalled. But it does add to the evidence that America’s relationship with the car really is changing.  (Hat tip to Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group.)

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