New Report: Driving Boom Goes Bust

Driving per person is down in 43 states—and the Northwest leads the way.

A new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group tracks driving rates across the US—and finds that driving per capita has fallen for eight straight years:

After sixty years of almost constant increases in the annual number of miles Americans drive, since 2004 Americans have decreased their driving per-capita for eight years in a row. Driving miles per person are down especially sharply among Millennials, America’s largest generation that will increasingly dominate national transportation trends.

Diving into the numbers a bit, the trends in the Pacific Northwest are particularly noteworthy. By the author’s estimates, Oregon saw the steepest driving declines of any state in the country: a 18.3 percent dip from the all-time peak. Washington’s decline, a mere 8.9 percent, seems tepid in comparison. Idaho outpaced Washington with a 10 percent drop in miles driven per person.

Slightly farther afield in the Northwest, Alaska saw a 16.8 percent decline, and Californians trimmed their per-capita driving by 7.9 percent.  Montana trailed the pack, with a 3.6 percent dip.

Also of note: Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were all at the forefront of the driving reduction trends, with miles driven per person peaking way back in 1999.  There were a few scattered states that matched that record, yet the Northwest as a region stands out nationally for its early progress in reducing driving.

The PIRG report also documents a curious fact: driving reductions weren’t closely correlated with the economic downturn.  Neither unemployment rates by state, nor the share of people employed, nor national GDP closely correlate with driving trends.  This corroborated something we’ve noted many times before: total driving on state roads in Washington and Oregon flat-lined long before the economy faltered.

What this suggests, perhaps, is that the decline in driving is only partially related to the shaky economy. Other trends—from gas prices to demographic shifts to cultural trends—are also at play. And if those other forces hold up, there’s every reason to believe that driving rates will continue to hold steady, or even decline further, even if the economy surges.

That all suggests the need for a reset in how we think about transportation investments: how many new roads will we really need—and more importantly, how many can we afford—in a world of stagnating driving and falling gas tax revenues?

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  1. Chadwick says:

    It is just this sort of simple-minded nonsense that is causing our highways to choke with traffic. Did you try to leave town Friday afternoon?

    By focusing only on miles driven per car, you leave out the total number of vehicles in the U.S., which continues to increase.

    Here is an actually intelligently-written article, which, unlike your article here, is not agenda-driven:–america-will-soon-see-labor-day-like-traffic–all-year-long-232948912.html

    “Study: America will soon see Labor Day-like traffic, all year long

    “According to the U.S. Travel Association, America’s roads are clogging fast, and within the next couple of decades, some areas of the country could see congestion on par with Labor Day traffic all year round.

    “However, the number of vehicles on the road continues to increase, thanks to business growth, population growth, and other factors. So, yes, we’re driving less, but there are more of us driving. That means a net gain of cars on the road, which means an increase in traffic.

    “Worse, desperately needed improvements to the nation’s infrastructure are being delayed thanks to budget cuts at all levels of government. Not only are highways too small to handle the increasing volume of vehicles, but our roads and bridges are crumbling, meaning that the infrastructure we do have is dangerous (causing accidents) and frequently under repair (causing construction delays). None of that helps traffic congestion.”

    It is car-haters like you who are promoting constantly-increasing traffic congestion by trying to discourage desperately-needed improvements to our highway system.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      You are, of course, wrong. The bulk of the evidence does not support your statements.

      But I don’t expect to convince you in comments on a blog. So I’ll at least do you the courtesy of not calling you names, and ending the discussion civilly. Have a nice day!

      • Chadwick says:

        You only report what you want to report. Here is another article stating that traffic congestion is now increasing in the U.S. in 2013:

        “Kirkland, WA – April 24, 2013 /PRNewswire/ — INRIX, a leading international provider of traffic information and driver services, today released its sixth Traffic Scorecard Annual Report, which revealed that traffic congestion is back on the rise in 2013 after two consecutive years of declines. In the first three months of this year, traffic congestion is up 4 percent compared to 2012. This suggests that after a tumultuous economic year in 2012, the economy is back on the mend bringing increased traffic congestion.

        ““Fears over recurring fiscal deadlines and ongoing debt issues last year likely fueled declines in traffic congestion, with businesses and consumers alike taking a ‘wait and see’ approach,” said Bryan Mistele, INRIX president and chief executive officer. “While bad news for drivers, the gains we’ve seen in the U.S. and a few countries in Europe in 2013 are cause for some optimism about the direction of the economy.”

        •”In 2013, traffic congestion in the U.S. increased each month for the first three months of the year – the first such consecutive month increase in two years. This increase is in line with a steady increase in employment in the first three months of 2013 (+1.3%).

        •”So far this year, 61 of America’s Top 100 Most Populated cities have experienced increased traffic congestion. This is a dramatic shift from 2012, where only six cities experienced increases and 94 saw decreases.

        •”Seven of 2012’s Top 10 Worst Cities for Traffic in America have experienced increasing traffic congestion in 2013. The largest increase to date is in Boston (+30%), likely a result of the Boston metropolitan area boasting unemployment figures that were 1.2 percentage points lower than the national average in February 2013.”

      • Clark Williams-Derry says:

        I’ve reviewed the INRIX methodology, as have others. They’re clearly bright people, but many of their congestion measures are flawed. (Their error has to do with measuring congestion as a percentage slowing of travel time, rather than as an absolute increase in travel time. Though, again, I don’t expect to convince you of this. )

        But they are correct that, by their measures, congestion has slightly increased nationwide from 2012 to 2013. That followed double-digit reductions in 2010 and 2011 (despite a return to modest economic growth, and sustained population growth, in that period).

        The trends are not uniform. In the release you quote, Inrix reported a 11% decline in greater Seattle congestion in Q1 2013 vs Q1 2012, following on a 10 percent YOY decline from 2011 to 2012. (I follow Northwest traffic trends much more closely than trends from elsewhere in the U.S.)

        Again, I can’t expect to convince you of anything in a blog discussion. Yet the bulk of the evidence suggests that per capita driving continues to decline; that total miles driven in the Northwest has been roughly flat for about a decade, and flat for a shorter time in the US as a whole; that congestion is down considerably from where it was a few years ago (though may be inching back up again in places, and is up substantially in a few Seattle-area corridors, particularly those affected by construction or tolls); and that gas tax revenue will continue to decline in real (and possibly nominal) terms.

        To me this all suggests, among other things, a need to shift highway investments from expansions to highway maintenance. As you point out, some roads, bridges, and highways are in bad shape. We have no plan to fix them, and precious little money dedicated to maintenance and preservation, in part because so much money is swallowed up by highway expansion plans.

    • Beaverton says:

      There’s no need to get emotional about this, Chadwick.
      Urbanization = More Congestion + Fewer Miles Driven

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