Cars and less carsEarly next month we’ll be updating last year’s report on trends in gasoline consumption. Some numbers are out from the Federal Highway administration on Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the first months of this year.

And it’s good news: Vehicle travel in the United States and the Northwest States is declining.

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  • Check out this chart from the latest report from the Federal Government:

    VMT Chart 2009 1Q


    Click here for a larger version of the chart.

    The decline in VMT puts us just about where we were in March 2004, in terms of total VMT over the preceding 12 months. Remarkable stuff, given that highway planning forecasts always assume that VMT will increase. These forecasts motivate decisions like investing billions of dollars in projects to accommodate more and more traffic—like the tunnel replacement for Seattle’s viaduct and the Columbia River Crossing project in Portland, projects that lock our communities into roads and cars rather than convenient alternatives.

    And this week, General Motors filed for bankruptcy partially because of falling demand for cars—especially big gas hogs. And while sales aren’t dropping like they were they are still way down from previous years. Now I am one to sometimes imagine a reality where maybe, just maybe, driving our cars is becoming less important to us partially because of energy costs but also because we are embracing alternatives.

    The other part of the news is that overall the pace of national decline in VMT seems to be slowing a bit. March of 2008 saw year over year decline of about 4.3 percent, compared to 2007. This March, the decline since a year ago was only 1.2 percent.

    In the Northwest VMT tends to drop from January to February and then rebound in March. In previous years that jump was 10 percent but this year the increase in VMT from January to March is only 8 percent. That’s 643,000 fewer miles than in 2007. And recent Northwest state VMT declines were steeper than the national average.

    We’ll be watching these trends and writing more over the summer. But the question still lingers: Should we be reordering our infrastructure investments? If indeed VMT is on the decline nationally and even more rapidly here in Cascadia, our money might be better spent in supporting projects (like light and heavy rail) and high capacity transit that will mean cars are just one of many convenient choices for how to get around.