The driving boom is over.
After decades of steady growth, U.S. driving rates have stagnated and even fallen. Per capita driving is as low as it was in 1996. And yet, federal and state government estimates continue to predict inexorable growth, relentlessly building expensive new highways for drivers who might not materialize.
A groundbreaking new study from U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group shows that any of three likely scenarios for future U.S. driving trends show far lower vehicle miles traveled than any of the principal current government estimates. That creates a disconnect between the kinds of transportation Americans are choosing with their feet and the kinds of transportation the system is designing for them.
Transit ridership is rising steadily – Americans took 10 percent more transit trips in 2011 than in 2005 – yet more than half of U.S. transit systems have been forced by budget constraints to either raise fares or cut service – or both – since the beginning of 2010. Meanwhile, although Americans are showing a flagging interest in automobile travel, states are breaking the bank to build shiny new roads.
Here are the three possible future scenarios for driving behavior that authors Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG and Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group laid out:
Back to the Future: This scenario assumes that the decline in driving is a temporary “blip,” largely due to the economic recession, and not a lasting trend. It assumes driving rates will soon pick right up where they left off. In this scenario, driving rates by age cohort and sex return to 2004 levels by 2020 and continue marching upward.
Enduring Shift: Under this scenario, the last decade’s shift in driving behaviors is real and lasting, with people continuing to embrace different forms of transportation and more compact communities. Gas prices stay high, the economy bounces back without leading to a huge jump in VMT, and the digitally-connected world continues to reduce the need for travel. This assumes each age and sex cohort keeps driving at lower rates than the same cohort did in previous generations. “For example, if 20 year-old males in 2009 drove 20 percent less than 20 year-old males did in 2001, it is assumed that eleven years later in 2020 they will similarly drive 20 percent less than 31-year-old males did in 2001,” Baxandall and Dutzik write.