VMT growth continued, slowed in 2016

By Chris McCahill

The total number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. grew by 2.8 percent to 3.2 trillion in 2016, according to monthly estimates from USDOT. This marks the third year of notable growth following nine years of historical lows, but still shows slower growth than in the previous year (3.5 percent, based on the most recent numbers).

VMT per capita—which adjusts for population growth—grew by 2.1 percent to 9,960. This was also slightly less growth than in 2015 (2.7 percent), but the highest rate of vehicle travel since 2007.

Figure 1. Annual vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. (sources: FHWA and Census Bureau)

Figure 1. Annual vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. (sources: FHWA and Census Bureau)

As we noted last year, this trend is linked closely to the growing national economy and, to a lesser extent, low gas prices. The national gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 1.6 percent in 2016 and average gas prices dropped by 8 percent, though these changes were less pronounced than in 2015.

While Americans’ driving habits have long been linked to economic activity, this relationship has weakened considerably over the past roughly 20 years. The number of miles driven per $1,000 of GDP dropped from 240 in 1995 (where it had hovered since before 1970) to 190 in 2016.

Figure 2. Annual vehicle miles traveled per 1,000 dollars of gross domestic product in the U.S. (sources: FHWA and Bureau of Economic Analysis)

Figure 2. Annual vehicle miles traveled per 1,000 dollars of gross domestic product in the U.S. (sources: FHWA and Bureau of Economic Analysis)

We should expect to see driving continue to rise as the economy grows and gas prices remain low, but that growth will likely be slower than in the past if current trends hold. Continued cultural and demographic shifts paired with new technologies such as autonomous vehicles could push that trend in either direction.

Chris McCahill is a Associate Researcher at SSTI.