Housing Complex

America (and Particularly D.C.) Has Passed Peak Driving, Study Finds

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Driving in America is on the decline, and D.C. is leading the way.

After a 60-year "driving boom" in which the average American drove more miles each year, that trend has finally reversed in the past decade. One strain of conventional wisdom is that the decline in driving in recent years is due to the recession: People want to save on gas, or no longer have jobs to commute to, so they're driving less. But a study released today by the consumer group U.S. PIRG finds that the move away from cars transcends the recession, and we may have passed peak driving.

Most states hit their maximum miles driven per person in the early or mid-2000s, well before the recession began, and have steadily declined since then. D.C.'s peak came in 2003; since then, per-capita driving in D.C. has fallen 21.7 percent, according to the study.

All but four states have seen a decline in per-capita driving since the mid-2000s. Ten states, plus D.C., have experienced a double-digit decline.

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The study finds no correlation between weak economic performance and a decline in driving. Instead, it states, "Among the 23 states in which driving miles per person declined faster than the national average, only six saw unemployment increase faster than the nation as a whole."

D.C. residents drive less than residents of any state—not surprising, since we're 100 percent urban. The average Washingtonian drives 5,774 miles annually. Alaskans, who drive the second least, log an average of 6,355 miles a year. Residents of Wyoming drive the most, 16,272 miles.

The District's 14.4 percent decline in per-capita driving between 2005 and 2011 was the second-biggest in the country, behind Alaska's 16.2 percent.

Given that the decrease in driving does not appear to be correlated with the economic slowdown or with other trends like telecommuting, the study concludes that it's probably the new norm and should be treated as such. "Policy makers can stop wondering whether American driving trends are changing," it states. "They should focus carefully on these trends, and start adapting policies to match them."

Update 11:00 a.m.: The report is now posted online. You can read it here. http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/moving-road

Images from the U.S. PIRG report

  • ——–

    Link to the report? Or are you the only one who gets to look at it? :)

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  • ceefer66

    "Cars are going out of style".

    "No one wants to drive anymore".

    Yeah. Right.

    This is the same kind of silliness we see in GGW. "It's so because we wish it be so. End of story".

    As a matter of fact, transit use has also peaked. There is plenty of evidence from credible studies that prove it.

    So when are we going to see a City Paper article bragging and crowing that "Americans are riding transit less"?

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/cavan Cavan

    You're amazing, ceefer.

  • Alan

    According to APTA, "In 2011, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation, the 2nd highest annual ridership number since 1957."

    Doesn't sound like transit has peaked unless you have amazing ESP and can predict a downward trend from that somehow.

  • DC Guy

    NIMBYs and the pro-car lobby will disagree and claim this is a conspiracy.

  • Stats

    The PIRG study looks at per capita VMT. So it doesn't reflect increased population. If everybody drives less (or shorter distances), but you have more people, then aggregate VMT in an area may continue to increase. DMV stats indicate that the number of cars/SUVs registered in DC has been increasing annually since 2005.

    The other relevant question for DC is what miles have been replaced and where and how. If people fly rather than take driving vacations or order stuff daily from Amazon rather than make a monthly trip to a shopping mall, it's not clear that has much effect on decreasing cars on the road in DC. Ditto if DC residents drive shorter distances because they can meet more of their needs in the city rather than going out to the burbs. On that model, the primary beneficiaries of the decreased VMT of DC residents -- from a number of cars on the road perspective -- would be MD and VA. (Obviously, there are fiscal benefits for DC to the extent that this is what is happening.)

    The APTA data is aggregate (and national), so it's not a valid comparison to the PIRG study. Also note the "since 1957" qualifier." If you look at WMATA stats, ridership has been down in recent years, despite population increases.

    In general, I'd be skeptical of making big trend claims based on a few years of data.

  • Greg

    @Stats, If you go look at the FHWAs numbers on total (as well as light-duty only) VMT we actually peaked in 2007 and have declined since then (though that is likely recession based). Still populaiton has increased much faster than VMT going back to at least 2005 [VMT in 2005 was 2,989,430 and in 2010 it was 2,967,266]. So even aggregate VMT is largely stable or certainly increasing no faster than population (which would track with per-capita VMT decreasing). The 2011 statistics are still getting worked on but the first cut I've seen has the total at 2,964,720 which would actually be a decrease from 2010 though slightly higher than 2009.

    Basically it looks like we are as a nation not increasing our driving or at the very least we are certainly not increasing it anywhere near as much as we are increasing our population.

    @creefer. If you look at the DoTs numbers in 2010 person-VMT (all numbers in millions so add 6 zeros) was 4,244,833 and transit person-MT was 52,627. Then in 2011 person-VMT was 4,224,297 (a decrease) while transit person-MT was 54,328 (an increase). So basically total road mileage is down and transit mileage is up. If you look at the 2005 to 2011 comparison its even starker. person-miles on the road have dropped 663,648 but transit has increased 7,203. Sure transit continues to be a much smaller percentage of total trip miles but its share is increasing while road is decreasing. In fact the last time we had this few person-miles on the road was in 1998.

  • Stats

    Forecasting that VMT has peaked based on 3 or 4 years of data seems premature to me, especially when we know that this is a period in which gas prices were high and the US experienced a recession. (And even then, the trend isn't steadily downward).

    That said, there have been some major policy and lifestyle changes -- e.g. more stringent/graduated licensing requirements for teenagers and internet shopping -- that may have permanently checked the rise of per capita VMT, but as long as population continues to increase and as long as we fail to invest in viable alternatives to automobility, it seems unlikely that aggregate VMT will continue to fall over the long-term.

    But there's not much use arguing over it. Time will tell.

  • ceefer


    U.S. PIRG. Another agenda-based group with a website.

    How about publishing data from a credible, unbiased source? Like real journalists do?

  • ceefer

    Things we can always assume is absolutely true and therefore believe"

    "The check is in the mail"

    "We'll do lunch"

    "I'll respect you in the morning"

    "I saw it on the internet, so it MUST be true".

  • http://www.shawnblog.com/ Shawn Blog

    I'm a DC resident that's driving a LOT more lately—because I became a Lyft driver at their launch party "way" back in August at 1776. Since the launch, hundreds of fine folks have hopped in my car—some of them car owners—and taken a ride across town or to the airport. So there's another drop (all squabbling aside of course) in drivers actually driving.

    Car use and ownership in cities that support alternatives will almost certainly drop as people learn about other options. I've found, after only a month on the road with a pink mustache on my car, that the alternative Lyft and some other companies provide as an option is catching on very quickly.

    On that note, be sure to download the Lyft app—and please, use my referral code [X8H2DF] for $10 on us for your first ride (also be sure enter the code BEFORE you request a Lyft or it won't work)

  • Typical DC BS

    How about referencing the FACT that unemployment skyrocketed during this reporting cycle, leading to millions of folks driving less because THEY HAD NO JOBS to go to?

    Left wing doofuses forgetting common sense answers to "facts" that back up their moronic worldviews.

  • Sydney

    Yeah, BS, that's not addressed -- and dispatched -- at all in the article, is it?

    Do they teach reading out there in the boondocks?