A new report offers more evidence that people are driving less.
The analysis of data from the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration and the Census Bureau shows that the decline in per-capita driving is occurring in a wide variety of regions.
The new analysis, by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, is the first city-level look at Americans' driving patterns. It reviewed miles-driven data for the nation's 100 most populous urban areas — home to more than half of the nation's population — and found that the average number of miles driven per resident fell in nearly three-quarters of the cities where up-to-date and accurate data were available. The drop occurred in 54 of the 74 cities with good data.
The report concludes that the average American drives 7.6% fewer miles today than in 2004, when per-capita driving peaked.
"I think the economy's going to have something to do with it, but there's a more profound kind of shift in travel practices," says Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst at U.S. PIRG. "If this was really something produced by the economy, you would expect the cities with the biggest reductions in driving to have the biggest increases in unemployment and poverty. But you find just the opposite. The cities that had the biggest decreases in driving were hit less hard by the economic downturn."
The analysis also found that most urban areas saw increases in public transit use and in bicycle commuting: The proportion of residents bicycling to work increased in 85 of 100 cities between 2000 and the end of the decade; the number of passenger miles traveled per capita on transit increased in 60 of 98 large cities between 2005 and 2010.
Several researchers have documented the drop in driving.
Another group of researchers, including Robert Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, maintains that there is no evidence to indicate that the drop in driving is not primarily driven by economic factors.
"Looking back to the invention of the automobile, what you see is when there is an economic recession in the United States, there is a very clear drop in miles driven and in motor vehicle deaths and injuries," Foss says.
Says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation: "The evidence is very weak that that (a major shift in driving) has occurred. It looks to me like this is primarily driven by the economy."
According to the most recent vehicle-miles-traveled data from the Federal Highway Administration, cumulative driving for the first nine months of 2013 is up 0.4% over the first nine months of 2012.
"This 0.4% growth is less than typical population growth, so we can expect another year of declining driving per person," Baxandall says. "This will be the eighth year in a row of decline after six decades of almost constant annual increases in per-capita VMT."
Partly as a response to the drop in driving, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, and representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Public Transportation Association are holding a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to push Blumenauer's new bill to increase the federal gas tax. "As fuel efficiency rises and the miles driven levels off, the revenue from the gas tax falls," says Patrick Malone, Blumenauer's spokesman. "So not only are people driving less, but they are using less fuel per mile, which means less funding for (roads and bridges)."