Have we hit Peak Car? What VMT data tell us

By Mary Ebeling

Nationwide, the decline in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is well documented, as is the decline in automobile ownership. Discussion of the causes remains a topic of debate. Regardless of cause, this new transportation reality is already changing the way DOTs do business. Most immediately, reduced VMT has resulted in lower fuel tax revenues. But almost as urgently, reduced VMT suggests that transportation agencies review plans and models that assume steadily growing automobile travel demand.

It is clear that the decline in per capita VMT is not tied to the beginning of the recession. In fact, as noted in a recent article in the Economist, VMT statistics from the early 2000s show the beginning of the trend. The numbers also show that the decline in VMT is not significantly linked to the price of gas. So what is happening?

SSTI has discussed this data in the past, suggesting that a move toward more compact development may be part of the cause. An increasing number of younger people, particularly those in urban areas, are opting not to purchase cars. Not surprisingly, they get their driver’s licenses later as well – with a significant number not getting a license at all. Across the generations, people take fewer auto trips and travel shorter distances. Data consistently shows per capita VMT trending downward among developed countries, including the U.S. Transit ridership is logging multi-year increases and record ridership in cities of all sizes. Bicycle and pedestrian trips are also increasing.

Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives, Inc.

Estimates from USDOT also track declining VMT for 2012. The chart below shows that VMT numbers are not increasing, even with a better economy. USDOT’s final numbers for VMT in 2011 records a 1.2 percent drop in travel.

FHWA Office of Highway Policy Information

If we are at “peak car,” what are the implications for maintaining existing infrastructure and responding to the growing need to provide multi-modal travel options? Toll Roads News’ take on the numbers pushes for a focus on asset management and modernization of the existing system rather than roadway expansion.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst with SSTI.