For 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:
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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?)
I don’t really know what to make of this article because the devil is always in the details. How was the data collected? Is there a built in bias? Are the differences statistically significant?Less vehicle miles could me more Air miles because people would just rather not drive, or did public transpo use increase. So there’s a lot to consider and chew on before one decides what’s going on, then determine what is means, much less decide whether it is good for the Carbon balance or not.
Geez, thanks Eric. I just spent the last two hours reading Brookings reports on transportation, economic competitiveness and climate.Thomas – I looked around and couldn’t find any summary data on air-miles-traveled, only one source explaining that such data probably isn’t available. Individual airlines seems to report travel expectations . “Air travel demand was far lower in November than expected—enough to persuade Delta Air Lines (DAL) to lock in 2009 capacity cuts of 6% to 8%.”The only summary data I found was related to safety, performance and profitability. (what matters gets measured?) I did though find this report about the steady decline in aviation fuel consumption.
Yes, Eric, “both of whom” is correct and adds a nice grammerical touch to an otherwise very intersting article.
I was feeling my smug Portland self about our 2.2% VMT reduction until I looked at the appendix and saw that Houston had a 5% reduction. Wha?!?
Less miles traveled, especially in urban areas, is a laudable goal. However, with financial support for the (aging) infrastructure already not keeping pace with the needs, the Oregon governor’s proposed legislation to shift the burden from a per/gal tax to a miles/traveled tax will most likely not lead to an increase in funding after all. ODOT’s pilot program in Portland to test the technology and acceptance of the alternate collection system was concluded in March 2007, and also had an element of urban and/or congestion driving by zones and time of day. However, its key benefit was that collecting for miles driven would unlink the revenue source from gallons purchased, compensating for newer low MPG vehicles. Considering that lowering VMT is also a goal, this should have been predictably yet another revenue source that will decline over time.Additionally, calculations may show that older, poor MPG vehicles will actually pay less than under the per gallon taxing scheme.