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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.