Data Suggests Peak Vehicle Miles Traveled Was Reached in 2007

Whether it is widening Martin Luther King Drive, adding a new interchange, building a new bridge, or adding additional capacity to existing streets throughout our cities, we always hear of the robust traffic growth that is anticipated. If nothing is done, then our communities would be stuck in gridlock.

But how have these projections actually measured up?

According to data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and cross examined with data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the traffic growth projections made by departments of transportation all over the country have been wildly off-base for the past decade.

National VMT (Actual) National Per Capita VMT

Since the 1980s, traffic on our roadways, as measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), has increased by approximately 2.5% annually. That is until the early 2000s when that trend changed rather abruptly. Since 2007, actual VMT has decreased approximately .3% annually. Meanwhile, per capita VMT has fallen sharply.

Many analysts have noticed the trends, but have been cautious to make any judgments about them due to the fact that the change took place around the same time as the Great Recession. The common thought was that people without jobs drive less. Even though most economists, however, have noticed a rebounding economy over recent years, both actual and per capita VMT continues to decline.

The persistent trends may in fact be the new normal for America as Baby Boomers retire and Millennials and subsequent generations continue their pivot away from personal automobile use. If this is the case, it appears that the United States hit peak VMT in 2007.

The implications pose serious policy questions. Presently, most departments of transportation spend most of their money annually on new capacity projects, while letting existing infrastructure crumble. Some policy makers and organizations, like Smart Growth America and President Obama (D), who first proposed such a program during his 2013 State of the Union Address, have advocated for a shift in this position to a ‘Fix-It-First’ approach.

Time will only tell what future trends will show. But as of now we are experiencing, for the first time in our nation’s history, a constant period of decline in terms of the amount of driving we are doing.

  • John Schneider

    There’s a fair amount of pushback right now on whether the decline in driving will become permanent. Some say it’s only because the Millennials can’t find jobs, or that the jobs they have won’t pay for the cars they want to own, that they are not necessarily happy non-drivers. A lot of people want to explain it away.

    I’m remembering someone at an OKI meeting many years ago saying economists feared our economy’s shift from manufacturing to services – usually at lower aggregate pay — would make cars less affordable for more Americans. And so I think this is the way it’s playing out — with Millennials affected earliest and hardest and eventually affecting buying patterns more broadly. I just more and more people are realizing how very relatively expensive a car can be especially if you have to park it in the city, hardly ever drive it, and have good transit options available.

    • As a recent Grist article points out, the cultural and economic motivations for driving less are not mutually exclusive. Millennials might be driving less because they can’t afford it now. But that doesn’t mean that they will suddenly want to start driving more once they get a better-paying job in a few years.

    • Let’s say that this trend is entirely driven from poor economic conditions, which many economists are now doubting due to its longevity. We know that at some point trends become normalized. So what may have started as temporary behavioral patterns due to economic reasons has now become the norm. Not only will Millennials and others have to hop back behind the wheel of a car, but they’ll have to do so in amazing numbers to return them to pre-2007 levels and continue 2-3% annual growth. To me this seems highly unlikely.

    • EDG

      That seems unrelated to the decline in the rate of millenials getting their drivers license. That’s something you can do regardless of owning a car. There is no doubt that cars are not affordable and cash for clunkers took a lot of viable used cars out of the market.

    • Young people are no longer rushing to get their license on the first day they’re allowed to do so. If you can catch a ride with your parents or friends, or are lucky enough to live in an area that provides quality transit, there’s no rush to get your license anymore.

  • Martin Menninger

    Great analysis. The message that needs to get to groups such as OKI and DOTs is that where we spend transportation money determines how we move. It is not all demographics and the economy. We can determine what VMT is in the future by how we invest today. The question needs to shift from “How do people travel?” to “What kind of community do we want?” The state of Ohio spends 1% of its transportation budget on transit. This funding level will never result in dynamic, healthy urban neighborhoods.

    • EDG

      This is a good resource. Really makes you question how historic street design relates to actual capacity-

  • charles ross

    Wow, that’s a massive trend. But there are so many reasons it could be the case. Even without public transit improvements, could average commutes have shortened due to jobs moving to suburban office parks? Could more people be sharing rides since 2000? I know as a boomer, I have nieces and nephews who did not jump to get their DL at 16, some waiting well into their 20’s and that’s certainly different than in the 70’s.

  • Are you just correcting the national total VMT for a growing population?
    VMT/population for each annual data point?

    Would that be for all people, or only those old enough to drive? Not sure if that would make a difference or not.