What if the world around you was changing and nobody seemed to notice?
For generations, traffic engineers, policymakers, the media and the public assumed that the number of miles Americans drive in their cars could only go in one direction: up. It was an assumption that drove the nation’s conversation around transportation policy. After all, if every passing year inevitably brought more cars to the roads, it was often argued, then maybe we had better add more highway capacity to match.
In the mid-2000s, though, something unexpected happened. The rate of growth in vehicle travel hit a speed bump.
Frontier Group’s Elizabeth Ridlington was one of the first to pick up on it. Elizabeth had spent years putting together state-level climate policy blueprints – blueprints that depended on projections of future vehicle travel. Yet, in the late 2000s she began to notice that the forecasts made by state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) were increasingly diverging from what was actually happening on the roads. State DOTs kept forecasting big increases in vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) that never seemed to materialize.
Why was this happening? One reason, it turned out, was that young people were driving less. In 2011, while poring through the recently released data from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, I found that vehicle travel had fallen sharply among young people – a 23% per-capita decline between 2001 and 2009.
That seemed like a big deal. And yet virtually no one was talking about it.
In fact, from the U.S. Department of Transportation on down, the professionals whose job it was to anticipate future demand for transportation continued to tell the public and decision-makers that America would be getting back on the path to rapid growth in VMT any minute now. In 2013, for example, the U.S. DOT forecast that VMT nationwide would increase by as much as 1.85% per year – to 3.65 trillion miles in 2020 and 4.31 trillion miles by 2028.
Government agencies made a lot of predictions between the late 1990s and mid-2010s about how much Americans would drive. They were wrong.
At Frontier Group, we started to factor changing trends in travel into our own analysis and writing as early as 2009. But it wasn’t until our 2012 report, Transportation and the New Generation, that we made the case that the decline in driving among young Americans had meaningful implications for the nation’s transportation future – and that policymakers should pay attention.
The release of the report, written by Frontier Group’s Benjamin Davis, received media attention in the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Economist, and Car & Driver, on National Public Radio, and in media outlets across the country. The media frenzy over the issue of Millennials and driving fueled a million bad takes on the internet, but also sparked earnest conversations among local and state policymakers around the country about whether and how transportation policy could better serve the emerging needs of young people.
The conversation started by Transportation and the New Generation drove us to take a deeper look at future trends in driving, leading to the publication the following year of A New Direction, which argued that per-capita VMT had likely peaked in the United States back in 2004, and that VMT in the U.S. could follow several different trajectories depending on the choices made by policymakers and individual Americans. It wasn’t just the evolving behaviors of young people that were causing VMT to stagnate, we argued. The aging of the population, the peaking of workforce participation, and the saturation of the vehicle market all suggested that vehicle travel would grow a lot less quickly in the future than it did in the past – if it grew at all.
Meanwhile, with partners including the State Smart Transportation Initiative, we called attention to the wildly out-of-step VMT forecasts made by state and federal DOTs.
Why argue about VMT forecasts? In part because those forecasts are used to justify the allocation of transportation resources, and the kinds of projects DOTs prioritize. In a report we produced with WISPIRG Foundation, Road Overkill, we documented that a series of newly built or expanded highways in Wisconsin did not receive nearly as much traffic as had been projected in their Environmental Impact Statements. If state and federal DOTs were inflating VMT forecasts or traffic projections – deliberately or inadvertently – it would shape how dollars were being spent, with huge impacts for our communities.
There was another reason these forecasts were important. The transportation conversation in the United States has long been centered around the automobile – and the idea that its growing dominance was an immutable fact of life. The myth of continual, rapid increases in VMT raised the specter of crushing traffic congestion – congestion that, according to traditional U.S. transportation thinking, could only be alleviated by an increase in highway capacity.
To acknowledge that vehicle travel was not destined to continue growing rapidly forever – and, more audaciously, to suggest that a new generation of Americans might prefer less car-dominated lives – would force policymakers and the public to have a different kind of conversation about our transportation future.
Nearly a decade after Transportation and the New Generation – and certainly not entirely due to our efforts – the transportation conversation is changing. The U.S. Department of Transportation has altered its methodology for making national VMT projections, including demographics and other factors in those forecasts as opposed to simply aggregating the forecasts of state DOTs. Unsurprisingly, the new method forecasts more modest growth in VMT (an average of 1.2% annually over the next 20 years in projections made before COVID-19).
The idea that transit, bike lanes and improved pedestrian infrastructure are desirable options – for Millennials and members of every generation – has taken firm root. Slowing the growth of vehicle travel has finally come to be seen as an essential strategy to address climate change, and providing Americans with a wide variety of safe and sustainable travel options has a key focus of America’s new Secretary of Transportation, the bikeshare-riding Millennial, Pete Buttigieg.
Moreover, the idea that vehicle travel would grow less quickly than it did in the past has been borne out by the experience of the last decade. Instead of driving 3.65 trillion miles in 2020, as the U.S. DOT had forecast as recently as 2013, Americans drove 3.26 trillion miles in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 – nearly 400 billion fewer miles than anticipated. Easy car loans and cheap gas fueled an explosion of vehicle travel for a couple of years in the mid-2010s, but the rate of growth was well below that of the second half of the 20th century and well within the range of scenarios we posited in A New Direction (see below).
Range of VMT scenarios in "A New Direction" vs. actual
The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has added a lot of uncertainty to our understanding of what the future might bring. But one thing is for sure: many Americans want a transportation future that is safer, healthier, more environmentally sustainable, provides more travel options, and is more supportive of the existence of vibrant communities that are open and accessible to all. Those desires are being expressed more clearly and more strongly than at any time in recent history. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility to imagine that this time – maybe this time – leaders in Washington, D.C., and the states will recognize the changes taking place. And listen.