Thursday, August 29, 2013

“Moving Off the Road”

U. S. PIRG has followed up on their report earlier this year on the end of the “Driving Boom” with a significant new piece, “Moving Off the Road,” which goes straight at the key question: is the national falloff in VMT just a result of the lousy economy?
The short answer is: No, it doesn’t appear to be.  (My comments and intro to the earlier report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” here, the new report here.)
The study sifts through state-by-state data on unemployment and other economic metrics and compares them with VMT data and basically finds no correlation.  (By the way, there isn’t much correlation with other economic and demographic factors either, leaving the differences in state VMT changes still somewhat mysterious.)
The basic facts are that per capita VMT is down – and down significantly – almost everywhere, except in a few outliers like North Dakota, which is experiencing an oil boom.  And that VMT drop has now been observed for some time.  In fact, per capita VMT has been going down for eight street years.
“Moving Off the Road” notes several other reasons for doubting that the decline in driving is just a result of the current economic slump: (1) Per capita driving had already begun to decline before the recession and has continued going down during the recovery, (2) other metrics of “motorization,” such as vehicles per household, have shown the same peak-and-decline pattern, (3) driving has declined among both the employed and the unemployed, and (4) the ups and downs of gross domestic product no longer track with the ups and downs of VMT.
In short, the case is beginning to look more and more compelling that driving patterns have made a dramatic and long-lasting shift over the past several years.
And of course this isn’t just an academic question.  As “Moving Off the Road” concludes, “Accepting that the Driving Boom has ended presents an enormous opportunity.  Our transportation system remains oriented to the goals of the 1950s, focused on creating new highways and expanded mobility for a new era of expanding automobile ownership.  To the extent that driving rates no longer climb, it makes it easier for America to shift priorities.”
Anyone doing long-range transportation planning needs should read both reports.

Congrats to Phineas Baxendall and U. S. PIRG for another excellent and high-impact report!

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