Fewer People Driving in the U.S. These Days

| by Mark Berman

By Marc Scribner

October 2011 marked the eighth straight month [PDF] of declining year-over-year vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. Compared to October 2010, driving was down 2.3 percent. Since reaching its peak of 3.031 trillion VMT in 2007, driving has essentially plateaued. With gas prices continuing to hover as high as they have been in recent years, this is not surprising. Most of the decline is coming from rural areas, which makes sense given that the rural residents’ share of total population continues to fall [PDF], with most of the U.S. population growth taking place within metropolitan areas. Rural residents’ average auto trips tend to be longer, so they are likely forgoing a few trips — thanks to high gas prices and a weak overall economy — that end up showing significant declines in vehicle-miles traveled.

But part of the decline can be attributed to anti-automobile public policy. With the substantial increase in the U.S. urban population in recent decades, lane-miles have not kept up with population growth trends [PDF]. Rather than increasing physical lane space to benefit drivers, transportation planners at the local, state, and federal levels have been using their taxes to fund infrastructure and service that benefits a tiny fraction of the population, at the expense of drivers. About one-fifth of federal fuel tax revenue collected from highway users is siphoned off to expensive, underused, heavily subsidized mass transit systems. Traffic congestion now costs the economy more than $100 billion annually [PDF].

Congress is set to take up the multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill this year (House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica has said by the end of January). Here’s to hoping they start fixing the problems they created, starting with: ending direct highway user subsidies of mass transit, permitting more tolling on federally funded highways, expanding private financing opportunities, and reining in the “flexing” of federal highway funding for non-highway purposes. But given their track record over the past 20 years, I’m not holding my breath.