Driving Vehicle Miles Are Increasing: Walking, Bicycling and Transit Are Not Replacing Driving

COST Commentary: The article below addresses the myth that there is a behavioral change in younger people which indicates a shift away from car driving to increased walking, biking and transit. This behavioral change is promoted from time to time by anti-car factions as support for increasing walking, biking and transit infrastructure. However, in every case, the change is exaggerated and not supported by facts. The sad and true facts are that we in Austin are spending a far greater percentage of transportation funds on the minuscule contribution of walking, biking and transit than to the overwhelming chosen transportation choice of driving. This results in continuing increases to roadway congestion. At least 99% if our regions daily passenger miles are on the roads.

The Austin region has a 20 year trend of declining transit use during a period which experienced a 70% population growth. This is a very convincing “survey” of the choice of regional citizens. Yet, with this strong affirmation of citizens’ transportation preference, elected leaders of Austin have continued to focus a majority of transportation funds on declining modes, resulting in increasing congestion on roadways and decreasing the quality of life of the vast majority of citizens. This ill-advised policy is, and will continue, degrading the desirability of citizens to work in and travel to Central Austin.
The Surprising Revival of Vehicle Miles of Travel
by Robert W. Poole, Jr., Director of Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation, Published in “Surface Transportation Innovations”, Issue 162, April 2017.

The Federal Highway Administration in late February released its latest Traffic Volume Trends report, finding that vehicle miles of travel (VMT) increased 2.9% in 2016, to a near-record 3.2 trillion miles. Even more surprising, VMT per capita continued the uptrend that began in 2014. The 2016 figure is 10,065 miles per capita, just a bit less than the all-time high of 10, 117 mi./person recorded in 2004. Eno Transportation Weekly’s Jeff Davis reported (Feb. 20, 2017) that growth in VMT/person over the last three years has averaged 1.7% per year, which exceeds the 13-year trend (1992-2004) of 1.3% per year.

These results call into question the widely discussed notion, popularized by anti-car groups like the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), that fundamental behavioral changes were at work, with an attitudinal shift away from car culture, especially among Millennials, and a shift from driving to biking and walking. I questioned that hypothesis at the time, and a recent study in the Journal of the American Planning Association bears me out.

In “The Driving Downturn,” Michael Manville, David King, and Michael Smart compare the evidence for the “peak car” explanation for the decline in VMT and VMT per capita (2004-2013) with the “economic” explanation—that the sharply increased cost of fuel and the impact of the Great Recession on employment—largely accounted for the VMT changes. They summarize their findings as follows:

“We find substantial evidence for the economic explanation. During the downturn, the cost of driving rose while median incomes fell. . . . Mass driving requires a mass middle class, but economic gains accrued largely to the most affluent. We find less evidence for ‘peak car.’ If Americans voluntarily drove less, they would likely use other modes more. However, despite heavy investment in bicycle infrastructure and public transportation in the 2000s, demand remained flat while driving fell.”

Their paper goes into details on their analysis, which I’m omitting here. But several of their findings on “little evidence of mode shift” are worth noting.

• Walking: They reviewed data showing that between 2002 and 2013 the share of Americans who walk regularly did not increase. Moreover, over 60% of walking trips were for exercise, recreation, or dog walking, which are not substitutes for driving.

• Biking: Bike trips per capita peaked in the 1970s, and between 2001 and 2009, biking’s share of all trips increased marginally, from 0.9% to 1.0%. Sales of bikes dropped, from 67 per thousand people in 2005 to 57 per thousand in 2014. And because most are short, few bike trips can replace driving.

• Transit: The supply of transit, as measured by vehicle hours of service, has tripled since 1970, and that expansion continued during the driving downturn. But this did not result in much additional ridership. Americans took 0.65 transit trips per person per week in 2012, up from 0.64 in 2004. And those numbers are little different from earlier years: 0.64 in 2000, 0.68 in 1990, 0.72 in 1980, and 0.68 in 1970.

But the most important comparison is provided not by rates but by absolute trip numbers. Manville et al. report that between 2004 and 2013, while highway passenger miles of travel decreased by 561 million, transit PMT increased by just 9.6 million. As they note, “The increase in transit cannot explain the drop in driving, particularly since more than 4 million of the increased transit PMT occurred in New York.”

Despite what all of these numbers show, I continue to read articles and hear presentations by transportation planners who are stuck in the “peak car” frame of reference, implying that their job going forward is to devote more resources to transit, biking, and walking and less to roads and highways. The facts clearly argue against that hypothesis; there are no “alternative facts” that justify making such plans.

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