To give credit where it is due, Cox gives the issue a relatively straight-up treatment, listing off 10 possible reasons for the decline. I’d disagree with a couple of them, but the general picture – that people are driving less as a result of temporary economic conditions and more-or-less permanent shifts in gasoline prices, technology and culture – tracks pretty well with what we’ve found in our explorations of the issue.
Of course, Cox can’t help but engage in a little statistical sleight of hand. He inexplicably contrasts current vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) with figures from 2006, which preceded the actual 2007 peak in vehicle travel. This has the effect of making the decline in driving look less significant than it would otherwise appear. He also claims that the entire decline in VMT has occurred in rural areas, which may be technically true, but ignores the fact that urban travel had been increasing far more rapidly than rural travel before the recession hit.
Cox concludes that the decline in driving does not amount to a “sea change” in Americans’ travel habits. In one way, it’s not – Americans drive about as much as they did five years ago, which is hardly a revolution.
But from another perspective, the change is profound. The number of miles driven on America’s highways had been increasing, more or less consistently, since World War II. It’s as if a car that had been speeding along at 60 miles per hour came to a screeching halt and began to roll slowly backwards, with Cox observing from the sidewalk, “Hey, that car’s barely moving. What’s the big deal?”
Differences in perspective aside, it is a welcome development that folks like Wendell Cox are finally acknowledging the change in VMT trends that people like Robert Puentes at the Brookings Institution began flagging more than three years ago. There are few signs, however, that the transportation establishment is coming to grips with the dramatic implications that this change in behavior has for transportation policy.
You see, transportation planners have historically made investment decisions based not on how much people are driving now, but on how much people are expected to drive 10, 20 or 40 years down the line. For decades, planners have been able to count on a steady year-by-year increase in driving stretching out to infinity, and have designed highway networks around that expectation. (Of course, building all those highways had an important role in encouraging the steady rise in VMT. Chicken, meet egg.)
The recent decline in driving, however, suggests that the assumption of ever-increasing vehicle travel is no longer valid. And the simultaneous increase in transit ridership and the popularity of other transportation alternatives suggests that, if we want to build a transportation system that meets the needs of people 10, 20 or 40 years down the line, we had better invest a far larger share of the funding pie in transit, rail and other alternatives than we have over the past half century.
The estimable Clark Williams-Derry at the Pacific Northwest’s Sightline Institute has documented how false assumptions regarding future transportation demands muck up transportation decision-making in his neck of the woods. One can imagine that similar flawed assumptions are being made in DOT offices all across the country … not to mention in Washington, D.C.
Let’s hope that the growing realization of the “sea change” in Americans’ driving behavior is followed by a more vigorous debate about how to retool transportation policy to provide the alternatives that Americans increasingly want and deserve.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.