istock carsFor installment number 9 million of “Sightline’s obsession with gas prices and driving behavior” I give you this new report on vehicle miles traveled from the Brookings Institute. I’m a bit late on this, but it’s still worth mentioning I think:

Driving, as measured by national VMT, began to plateau as far back as 2004 and dropped in 2007 for the first time since 1980. Per capita driving followed a similar pattern, with flat-lining growth after 2000 and falling rates since 2005. These recent declines in driving predated the steady hikes in gas prices during 2007 and 2008. Moreover, the recent drops in VMT (90 billion miles) and VMT per capita (388 miles) are the largest annualized drops since World War II.

What’s especially remarkable to me is not the decline itself, but rather the timing of the decline. That it occurred prior to the big gas price run-up is, I’d argue evidence of at least two things:

  • 1.) Though fuel prices tend to dominate the headlines and the cultural conversation, they are not the only driver of driving patterns. Broader and more techtonic shifts can matter every bit as much, if not more. To name just a couple of factors, changing urbanism, work habits, and demographics can play a large, if largely unseen, role in our aggregate behavior.

    2.) We can pretty much guarantee that the data for 2008 will show even larger drops in VMT. Fuel prices may not be the only factor, but they certainly do matter for all the reasons that I mentioned in this post on rising transit ridership.

    Oh, there’s one other interesting finding in this report. As this appendix makes clear, Seattle and Portland were both national leaders in reducing per capita VMT from 2002 to 2006. In fact, somewhat predictably, the cities are next-door neighbors in the rankings: Portland racked up an impressive 2.2% decline while Seattle registered a 1.6% decline. These are both very good by national standards.

    Neither city appears content to rest on its laurels. Earlier this year, Washington became the first state in the nation to pass a law that set out VMT reduction targets. And word has it that Oregon will consider its own VMT-reduction law in the upcoming 2009 legislative session.

    You can read the full report here.

    Hat tip to Callie Jordan and Todd Wildermuth, both of whom emailed me this report. (Is “both of whom” grammatically correct here?)