Driving on the decline, but road work goes on

February 1, 2014

 

Anyone who has driven through San Joaquin County recently has noticed heavy construction on highways and roads, with hundreds of millions spent to increase the region’s traffic capacity.

With all of this new construction, passersby might conclude that car use is surging, but they would actually be mistaken. By nearly every metric, driving is on the decline across the United States while public transportation ridership continues to climb, even in the Central Valley. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the numbers

In 2012, national per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) dropped to its lowest level since 1996. While some attribute the decline in driving to the recession, the data prove otherwise.

In 2004, VMT peaked at around 10,000 annually and has been falling steadily ever since. According to the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI), the decline in national VMT began before the housing crisis— albeit slowly– but then took a drastic plunge in 2007.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, that trend holds true here in the car-heavy Central Valley as total VMT in recent years is less than the mid-2000s. We may be experiencing a phenomenon known as “peak driving,” in that we have reached our limit for how many miles we will drive. Just 10 years ago, the concept seemed laughable, but faced with new statistics, it appears as if less driving may be the new norm.

A parallel decline in gasoline consumption corroborates the theory that Americans have curtailed their driving. Since 2007, demand for gas fell 6.1 percent, going from 9.3 million barrels of oil per day to 8.73 in 2012. As a result, the number of gas stations nationwide has fallen by 8 percent (nearly 14,000 stations) since 2002.

The decline in VMT and gas consumption corresponds with a rise in public transportation ridership. In 2012, 10.5 billion rides were recorded nationwide, the second highest total since 1957 (which is particularly impressive given that public transportation in the Northeast was knocked out by Hurricane Sandy for an extended period of time).

The demand for public transportation has grown locally as well. In Stockton, San Joaquin Regional Transit District’s new Metro Express lines have proven incredibly popular, dramatically increasing ridership along Stockton’s busy Hammer Lane and Pacific Avenue corridors. In fact, a recent customer survey has prompted the agency to increase frequency on these routes during traditionally slower weekend stretches. Moreover, the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) logged one million passengers in 2013, the highest total in its history.

Why is this happening? The obvious answer would be that high gas prices have forced us to change our transportation patterns. However, it turns out that there is only a weak correlation between gas price and VMT. According to the SSTI, the decline in driving cannot be fully explained by higher gas prices. In fact, the SSTI found a fairly strong correlation between VMT and the density of urbanized areas. Translation: as people return to city living, they don’t drive cars as much.

It’s clear that decreasing VMT and increasing public transit ridership are real trends, not anomalies. We are driving less while relying on public transit, bikes and our own feet to get us to where we need to go. However, our spending on infrastructure fails to reflect the new trends. While we continue to spend the vast majority of funds on highways without a second thought, other means of transportation such as busses, commuter rails and biking have to scrap and claw for every dollar. In light of this information, it’s time to rethink the value of highway projects and consider boosting investments in other modes of transportation.

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