U.S. miles driven rose, then fell. What’s up with that?!

360px-CBX_Parkchester_6_jeh[1]Continuing the discussion from Jan. 7, 2013, Editor Jim Wrinn in the Sept. 2011 issue of Trains writes: “By 2050, 100 million more Americans will live here. Will we plan ahead or just deal with the crisis?”1

Considering what was written, the vehicle in which these statements appear and keeping it all in perspective, one should be able to deduce with a reasonably high level of confidence the “crisis” of which Wrinn is referring. My presumption is it has to do with transportation gridlock.

So, concerning that “crisis” potentiality, to be considered here in considerable detail is what is potentially at stake.

Struggle of titanic proportions

America’s network of rail- and roadways is being asked to do more and more. The land- transportation network is becoming ever more constrained from a population increasing in size and one, seemingly, increasingly on the move.

If the two main land-transport heavyweights – railways and roadways – squared off in the ring, in the one corner railways would weigh in at 200,000 track miles. Pitted against them are roadways in the corner opposite, this mileage tipping the scales in its favor at a hefty 4 million strong. It can be seen, quite plainly, railway to roadway mileage pales in comparison. The result? Imbalance.

True, but is it necessary that the surface transportation playing field be balanced or more balanced?

In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its “2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” report. In it “Roads” received a grade of “D-.” There is only one rating that’s worse: “F.” Again, keep in mind this is for year 2009.

Using the Texas A & M Transportation Institute 2007 Urban Mobility Report as its source, the ASCE presents in tabular format a list – in descending order from worst to least worst – the nation’s “Top 10 Most Congested Cities” and includes corresponding annual average “hours of delay per traveler” numbers. It’s not a pretty picture. Furthermore, and tied to and below that table is the graph: “Highway Vehicle Miles Traveled: 1995-2005.” The source of information for this is: “Transportation Statistics Annual Report: 2007, U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2008.”

According to information presented in “Table C-26 U.S. Vehicle-Miles: 1995-2005,” highway vehicle miles traveled (VMT), went from 2.423 trillion in 1995 to 2.99 trillion in 2005, an increase of 23.4 percent.

Getting back to America’s “Top 10 Most Congested Cities,” meanwhile, “Los Angeles/Long Beach-Santa Ana” was ranked worst, the annual average “hours of delay per traveler” being 72, eight hours shy of the equivalent of two work weeks stuck in traffic each year. Coming in at number 10 or the least worst of the grouping is “Chicago IL-IN” registering an annual average 46 “hours of delay per traveler.”

Among the ASCE’s observations: “From 1980 to 2005, while automobile VMT increased 94% and truck VMT increased 105%, highway lane-miles grew by only 3.5%. From 1994 to 2004, ton miles of freight moved by truck grew 33%. The increase in freight traffic is of particular concern …”

If follows then that with truck- (and automobile-) induced roadway wear and tear and lacking attention and sufficient improvement investment, network deterioration is to be expected.

“It is clear that significant improvements and system maintenance will require significant investments,” the ASCE observed.

Meanwhile, in the book “30 Simple Energy Things You Can Do To Save The Earth,” on page 57 under “Auto Savings” (number 27) in the “Energy Facts” section, the second sentence in the last “fact” reads: “Today, traffic congestion wastes about 6 billion gallons of gas a year—a lifetime supply of gasoline for an estimated 800,000 cars.”2 Using an average price for a gallon of gas of $3.50 that is $21 billion down the drain every year provided conditions stay the same.

But, it isn’t just the gas being wasted that’s cause for concern; there is the matter of released air emissions related to such waste.

Not all doom and gloom

If every cloud has a silver lining, then there is a ray of hope in all of this.

Consider this from DC.StreetsBlog.org columnist Stephen Miller.

According to what Miller presented, the latest recession lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. From the supplied graph, from 10 months after the end of the latest recession to approximately 17 months out, per-capita vehicle miles driven experienced a -0.7 percent change in per-capita VMT after a slight rise in per-capita VMT from 0-to-10 months out.

Miller mentioned also that many Americans are making the conscious choice to live in urban centers who then place far greater emphasis on walking, biking and on transit use to meet individual mobility needs, citizens who might have otherwise been living in suburbia.

Time for a different approach?DSCN2558 (340x255)

In concluding, Miller noted, “… economic and cultural changes are leading to less driving – and this trend shows up in more than just the federal VMT data, [economist Joe] Cortright explained. He looked at data from Inrix, a private firm that monitors and predicts traffic flow, and found that congestion in U.S. metropolitan areas has been dropping as well.”

Bottom line is that it looks as if highway miles traveled are on the downswing.

“It’s a fact that Congressional leaders can no longer afford to ignore as they prepare to draft the next surface transportation bill,” Miller wrote.

If VMT is, in fact, on the decline, then what this suggests to me is that more transportation- improvement dollars should be spent on alternative surface transportation programs with fewer investment dollars being allocated to highway spending. To do otherwise, would seem counterintuitive.

It also follows that if fewer vehicle miles are being logged, air quality should be seeing some improvement.

In response to Wrinn’s earlier question, planning should revolve more around the “transit village” concept, a fundamental characteristic of such being pedestrian-friendly, transit-accessible neighborhoods, the focus here being on the walkability, bikability and public transit connectivity aspects, as opposed to transportation planning centered on highway expansion or, in other words, more of the transportation-expenditure dollar should go toward Smart Growth development. It would appear that that is the prudent course to be taking. That’s my observation.

In the Nov. 4, 2007 Parade magazine in “A Better Way To Travel?” meanwhile, author Peter Richmond writes, “Many transportation experts insist that the best answer to transportation gridlock is efficient intercity rail travel.”


  1. Jim Wrinn, “From The Editor,” Trains, Sept. 2011, p. 4.
  2. “30 Simple Energy Things You Can Do To Save The Earth,” Earth Works Press, distributed by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, 2006, p. 57.

This post was last revised on Dec. 18, 2020 @ 7:50 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

– Alan Kandel