Fact file: Driving came roaring back in 2021
Though the pandemic kept many of us home in 2020, Americans drove nearly as much in 2021 as in 2019. Here's the data.
The U.S. Federal Highway Administration just released its December 2021 Traffic Volume Trends data, giving us a picture of U.S. driving trends for 2021.1 The data show that, after a sharp drop in 2020, total vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) – which is the total distance all vehicles traveled, regardless of occupancy – and per capita VMT (total VMT divided by the U.S. population) both surged back almost to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.2 Specifically, total VMT rose 11.2% – to 3.229 trillion miles – and per capita VMT rose 10.39% – to 9,728.5 miles per person – from 2020 to 2021.
Per capita VMT in the U.S., 1946 to 20213
Neither total VMT nor per capita VMT reached the level of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, but total VMT for 2021 was just 1% lower than in 2019, and per capita VMT just 2.1% lower. Per capita VMT remained 3.84% lower than its peak in 2004.
The resurgence of vehicle travel contributes to a range of driving-related problems, including climate pollution, air pollution, noise pollution, and injuries and deaths on the roads. And it makes us miserable.
Despite the recent rise in vehicle travel, Americans still drive far fewer miles than was predicted in forecasts made by various agencies and organizations over the last 23 years.
U.S. total VMT vs. forecasts, 1994 to 2041
State DOTs and advocates of highway expansion often attempt to justify their projects based on forecasts of rapidly growing travel demand. As we have been arguing for nearly a decade, those forecasts are often overblown (or are self-fulfilling prophecies). The fact that the average American drives less now than at the end of George W. Bush’s first term should lead us to receive forecasts assuming large increases in driving in coming decades with more than a few grains of salt.4
It should also remind us that a future of ever-more time spent in our cars is not inevitable. There are many, many ways to change how we get around that will make us safer, healthier and happier. It’s time to make them a reality.
Photo credit: Randy Lisciarelli via Unsplash
- Frontier Group, and my colleague Tony Dutzik in particular, has been writing about driving trends for a long time, including a report in 2013 on changing driving patterns, checking on the driving habits of Americans again in 2017, and writing about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel patterns back in 2020.↩︎
- Note: per capita VMT uses total U.S. population (as opposed to, for example, licensed drivers) and so is likely an underestimate of actual VMT for those who actually use cars.↩︎
- Data from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau.↩︎
- Some more recent forecasts are more conservative than those made in previous years. See, for example, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s prediction of VMT from Spring 2021: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/tables/vmt/vmt_forecast_sum.cfm.↩︎
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.