End of the Driving Boom Could Have Broad Policy Implications for Transportation
Last week’s “Traffic Volume Trends” report by the Federal Highway Administration showed that Americans drove 3.7 billion miles fewer in the month of March than they did in the same month a year ago. This isn’t an anomaly. Also last week, the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) and the Frontier Group jointly released a report entitled “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future” that said such declines are part of a trend that is likely to continue. That trend, the report says, throws into question whether transportation planning and public policy accurately reflect America’s changing transportation preferences and priorities.
After nearly six decades of continuous rise, the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by Americans began to slow at the turn of the century. The VMT per capita actually began to fall over the same period. Americans now drive no more miles in total that they did in 2004 and no more per driver than back in 1996. The authors announce decisively: “The Driving Boom is over.”
Individual transportation decisions are a mix of budget and preference; it appears that both are changing rapidly, especially among the millennial generation (persons born between 1983 and 2000). This generational shift appears to be of utmost importance to this slowdown. Millennials will make up largest demographic group of drivers by 2030 but are less likely to own a car or even a driver’s license than their parents and grandparents.
As for budget, the recovery muddles onward and millennials are still faced with a grim outlook. Unemployment among much of this generation (ages 15 – 24) is currently 12.8% and young workers are expected to have an average of 6.3 jobs between the ages of 18 and 25. Combine that with crippling student loan debt and even though millennials have a great deal of fungible income they are unlikely to make the long term investment toward buying a car or house.
If this per-capita trend is likely to continue past the recession it will have to coincide with a change in preferences. How do millennials get to their 6.3 jobs? Evidence shows they are engaging with different modes in their commutes. Not coincidentally, US-PIRG observed that Americans took 10 percent more trips via public transit in 2011 than they did in 2005. Millennials also appear to prefer urban, dense communities where walking, cycling and transit modes are more useful and are frequently preferable to driving. Finally, this generation is also more likely to fully embrace technology; they engage in telecommuting or use this technology to make transit easier to plan and navigate.
The economic malaise, combined with high gas prices forced this generation to second guess the sacred tradition of the American 20th century commute. US PIRG supposes that the length of this recession may be long enough to permanently alter some of the preferences behind commuting behavior as younger Americans form different habits than their parents.
To further add to the decline, baby boomers, the first generation which came of age with cars and suburbs, are retiring and driving less. US PIRG warns that we may have grossly overestimated the nation’s future VMT and that has significant policy implications.
The US PIRG study was performed using national data and the U.S. is not homogenous. However, even if some places in the U.S. see VMT growth and others see VMT level off or fall, all states should remain willing to question the mantra of continuous growth and react to the new normal. US PIRG suggests that state policy makers should heed a few implications of this change:
Congestion has fallen: The Texas Transportation Institute reported that Americans spent 421 million fewer hours in traffic in 2011 that they did in 2005. US PIRG recommends that plans to add new capacity should be reviewed as to not over supply lane-miles of freeway and waste scarce resources. Instead of expanding, funds can be reutilized to repair existing infrastructure and make the roads we have safer.
The gas tax is becoming even less effective: The good news is that when American’s drive less their cars do less damage to the roads; however, this also means they are buying less gas and paying less tax on that gas. States are still in a game of catch up to restore their infrastructure due to years of underfunding and deferred maintenance and it is likely that decreased VMT is as much a bane as a boon for the funding problem. Funds will continue to be insufficient to fill this gap and US PIRG notes that states should continue to evaluate their funding options.
Transportation diversity: While VMT declines and modal preferences change, states should ensure that funds are malleable enough for supporting these modern commuter preferences. This may require states allowing flexibility on the local level as no two cities will have the same transportation needs or preferences, even within states. Cities vary wildly in transportation needs due to variation in land use and infrastructure. US PIRG calls for policy makers to keep an open mind with regards to previously less popular infrastructural features such as bike lanes and light rail which may better match the shifting needs and desires of morning commuters.