Plenty of national news stories have noted the recent nose-dive in driving all across the United States.  Federal figures show that over the past year—as gas prices spiked and the economy slumped—total vehicle travel fell more 3 percent, a remarkable decline.

But it’s a bit more surprising, perhaps, to find that there’s been a decline in per-capita vehicle travel in the Northwest states—Oregon, Idaho, and Washington—that’s has been underway for nearly a decade. 

Take a look at the chart to the right.  It shows vehicle travel from the Federal Highway Statistics reports, adjusted for population, from 1994 through 2007.  And as you can see, per-person vehicle travel has been on the decline since 1999, back when gas prices were at historic lows. When 2008 data are released, I expect that we’ll see even steeper declines.

To me, the interesting thing is that the falloff in per-person vehicle travel has been slow and steady:  nothing big in any one year, and not enough to make headlines, but enough over time to make a difference in our per-person travel.  In fact, the per-capita declines over the past few years have nearly offset population growth:  total vehicle travel in the Northwest states was only a wee bit more in 2007 than it was in 2003.

  • Two quick caveats about the numbers.

    First, VMT data tend to be a bit dicey, since they’re based on modeling estimates from a relatively small set of samples—basically, those “tube counters” you sometimes drive over on the highway. 

    And second, most of the decline is the result of Oregon’s trends!  Driving’s dipped a bit in both Washington and Idaho, but Oregon has led the way, with a 9 percent decline in per-capita mileage between 1999 and 2007.  This makes me wonder whether Oregon’s doing something right—or if the Federal data are simply a bit screwy!!