VMT per capita declines in 2000s

In 2010, the 10-year rolling average for change in U.S. per capita VMT went negative.

The decline was slight — .01 percent — but it stands in stark contrast to the growth that was the norm for decades before.

Figure 1. 10-year rolling average in U.S. per capita VMT change. (FHWA, Census Bureau)

On an annual basis, VMT per capita in 2010 was up slightly, but still 4 percent below the peak year of 2004.

Figure 2. U.S. per capita VMT. (FHWA, Census Bureau)

The figures bear out the turning-point hypothesis in a widely read 2006 study for the U.S. DOT, “The Case for Moderate Growth in Vehicle Miles of Travel: A Critical Juncture in U.S. Travel Behavior Trends” (Polzin). The study cited demographic and economic trends, such as the saturation of the market for autos and declining household sizes, as indicators that the rapid increases in personal travel seen in the 20th century would not continue. It envisioned continued growth of per capita travel, but at a much lower rate.

More recently, at least one study has gone further, citing many of the same factors but predicting an outright “stagnation” in per capita travel in developed countries including the United States (Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper, 2010). Note: Link leads to abstract and pay-for-view. SSTI members, please contact SSTI if you would like a copy.

Because the U.S. population continues to grow, total VMT will continue to rise, albeit slowly compared to 20th century rates, unless per capita VMT takes a steeper dive. In 2010 total VMT was up 0.7 percent after declining in 2008 and 2009.