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Wait, Maybe There Really Is A War On Cars

2011 June 1
by dan bertolet

< I-5 in downtown Seattle >

Judging by the data, members of the Church of the Automobile might well believe there is a war on cars. How else to explain the unprecedented wane in driving that’s been observed both locally and nationally over the past half-decade?

The Sightline Institute’s Clark Williams-Derry has been digging into the data on driving throughout the Pacific Northwest, and what the data consistently say is that the era of ever-increasing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is over. A summary:

The national trend is similar (check out this graph). While the rapid VMT decline in 2008 was largely a result of the recession, a clear slackening trend began well before that. Since 2009 total VMT have risen again, but in March 2011 (latest data available) VMT are down 1.4 percent from March 2010, suggesting driving may plateauing again.

As of a few days ago, the U.S. average price for gasoline was $3.81 per gallon, up from $2.76 a year ago. It’s not hard to guess which way this will push the VMT trend. And given the increasing global demand for a limited supply, a continuing upward trend in gasoline prices over the long term is inevitable.

The interesting thing about this mega-shift in transportation is that it’s happening all by itself, with essentially zero government intervention. In fact, given our ongoing penchant for road building, along with our continued subsidization and absorption of externalized costs, you could say that the trend toward reduced driving is happening in spite of our attempts to prevent it.

Imagine how things might go if we actually enacted effective policy and made significant infrastructure investments to facilitate the transformation away from auto-dependence.

What if the State of Washington took a few billion away from freeway projects and pumped it into transit? Which, given the VMT reduction goals codified in Washington State law, is just the sort of strategy one might assume the State would be seriously considering. Oh well, maybe next decade.

The people are already demonstrating their changing preferences, as revealed in the latest data on driving. Governments have an obligation to be more proactive about getting out ahead of the trend to help create the changes that fit the demands of an evolving populace and planet. No war required.





8 Responses leave one →
  1. June 1, 2011

    Could it be a case of the trucking industry and the makers and sellers of consumable goods that has the lobbyists who continually push for new road construction? The trend toward buying locally may go hand in hand with the VMT being down. A policy that encourages small local manufacturing vs. one that sends such jobs across national borders would go a long way to improving freight miles traveled and the need for ever-widening highways.

  2. Dave permalink
    June 1, 2011

    I find all of this very interesting, but, seriously, you aren’t even going to mention the words “economic downtown”? Shouldn’t you at least consider the possibility that this decrease in driving has more to do with the recession (i.e., fewer people driving to jobs, less economic activity, fewer trucks driving around making deliveries, etc.) than a preference for driving less (which would be great, don’t get me wrong)?

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      June 1, 2011

      Read the description of each of the trends in Dan’s article – these are decade scale trends. Or click on the actual links – Clark discusses the effects of the downturn in each post. Yes, the downturn has an effect. But driving has been flat or declining even outside this time period.

      Oh, and he does mention the downturn in the 3rd paragraph.

      • Dave permalink
        June 2, 2011

        OK, my bad. Apparently I skimmed a bit too much.

        And Dan has a good point that rising fuel prices will probably lead to people choosing other ways to get around (at least I would hope so), although there are some who argue that people will always find ways to drive — that we’ll just switch more to hybrids and electric cars and whatever else enables us to keep driving.

    • dan bertolet permalink*
      June 1, 2011

      Re: Dave’s comment about “preferences,” it may seem like gas prices and economic conditions shouldn’t have any bearing on people’s preferences, but in reality they do. When gas prices rise, people choose, i.e. they prefer, to not drive so much. And in the future we can expect to have more and more people preferring not to drive so much for a whole host of converging reasons.

  3. Dan Staley permalink
    June 1, 2011

    Peak Car!

  4. Christopher Aiken permalink
    June 9, 2011

    Washingotn State has been a trailblazer in at least one area since 1991 that may also have an impact on the VMT per capita reductions cited: Transportation Demand Management (TDM). The statewide Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Law and subsequent program has been working with local and regioan governments, major employers and their employees for 20 years (based on reducing congestion, fuel consumption, and improving air quality), raising awareness around transportation options, changing travel behavior, and thereby reducing SOV rates in Wa State consistantly during that time. In 2006 the CTR Efficiency Act built on CTR to better link to local land-use and econolmic growth goals in local comprehansive plans, thereby shifting the focus from short-term trip reduction goals, to longer term payoffs in terms of transportatiom system efficiency and aligned transportation investments and land-use decisions.
    I don’t think CTR can account for all of the VMT decline trend mentioned, but it is a factor worth admiting. It’s true WSDOT has built a lot of road, but they have also fostered a pretty robust TDM strategy, which with correct vision and expansion, should become one of the major tools in the WSDOT toolkit as it shrinks to reflect current budget, maintenence, system efficiency and preservation focus.

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