Annual per-capita California driving 1.5 times the national average

Californians love their cars. So, how do I know this?

DSCN4326 (340x255)Well, depending upon source referenced, in the Golden State there is anywhere between 27.5 million and 32 million registered motor vehicles.

Even at the more conservative of the two numbers, that’s a minimum of 1.25 statewide registered cars and light-duty trucks for every licensed in-state driver. I’m serious! Translated, that’s 22 million licensed drivers. That’s more drivers than some states have people.

It is not the number of drivers that I find most interesting – it’s the number of motor vehicles available to Golden State motorists; outnumbering them by a factor of 1.25 to 1. That’s 10 motor vehicles for every eight drivers.


Soybeanbus[1]Fact is, this is 5.5 million vehicles above and beyond what is necessary to have those who do drive meet personal automated mobility (read: “private passenger vehicle”) needs.

Even without those five-and-a-half million “extra” automobiles, Californians record over 300 billion driving miles yearly using 15 billion gallons of gasoline to do so.

I don’t know what you make of this, but what it tells me is that an average 681.81 gallons of gas is consumed by a cohort of thirsty automobiles used in getting all California drivers to and from destinations yearly – and that’s at minimum.

Extra automobiles, extra miles, extra expense

It’s one thing to have on hand a contingent of so-called “back-up” vehicles at the ready. It’s something else entirely to rack up vehicle miles traveled (VMT) the way motorists in California do – that is, in unparalleled fashion.

View of Los Angeles, California taken from space
View of Los Angeles, California taken from space

What we’re talking about here is, individually, California drivers are averaging a bloated 13,636 miles annually. This compares nationally to an average per-capita per-annum VMT of 9,363. That is 4,273 miles driven over the nationwide average or almost 1.5 times what the typical American driver is driving. And think of all the extra expense required to allow this to happen.

But, it isn’t just this.

Add to this California drivers in using the automobile as their primary means of transportation, are only averaging a miles-per-gallon fuel economy rating of 20 (mpg) per vehicle. One must take into account what is attributing to this relatively low rating and that is congestion delay.

The Texas Transportation Institute in its 2012 Urban Mobility Report declared that motorists in two regions – Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana (LA-LB-SA) and San Francisco-Oakland (SF-O) – experience a yearly average 61 hours of delay. This is the equivalent of a work-week-and-a-half’s worth of time stuck in traffic.

Aerial view of San Francisco taken from space
Aerial view of San Francisco taken from space

In monetary terms, that means an additional 27 and 25 gallons of fuel consumed in 2011 by area automobiles in LA-LB-SA and SF-O, and corresponding congestion costs of $1,300 and $1,266, respectively.

Moreover, respectively, travel delay was reported to be 501,880,000 hours and 155,157,000 hours in LA-LB-SA and SF-O resulting in the corresponding collective fuel-consumption amounts of 219,710,000 gallons and 64,509,000 gallons all for a combined 657,037,000 hours of delay and 284,219,000 gallons of fuel wasted.

Add in the unnecessary negative environmental (air) impact and it is not too difficult to see what the effect of all of this waste is.

As a state, can we do better?

I think more than enough time, money and gas, has been wasted already, don’t you?


Images (3rd and 4th from top): NASA

– Alan Kandel

12 thoughts on “Annual per-capita California driving 1.5 times the national average”

  1. Thank you for all your direction that no one seems to pay attention to.
    Look at us, We are planting trees in China to help them with their environment.
    I traveled to China 3 years ago with a member of our own Federal EPA who recommended to the Chinese we need to plant our hybrid tree there. WHY,
    Do we not need to clean up our environment here also. Too much red tape here.
    Ray Allen CEO

  2. Until you live in the Los Angeles area, I don’t think you have a practical knowledge of how to solve reducing cars in L.A. I personally don’t want to breath &*(^% exhaust from cars when I’m on a bike. Some people can’t afford to live close to their work. The bus system stinks. The train is pleasant but what do you do in a business suit with a briefcase in 100 degree heat when you get off at the other end? Ride a bike. Yeah. Riigghhht. Or pay and expensive taxi? Lack of space for housing and you are going to to pull imminent domain and raze a bunch of houses for public transportation? You haven’t suggested one SPECIFIC way to help L.A. Anyone can say let’s get rid of the gangs, or put in more parks, or, or or. The debate arises as to the PRACTICAL and ECONOMICAL HOW of which you have not. Only blowing smoke like the cars. Politically correct doesn’t cut it. Los Angeles needs practical, not idealistic solutions.

  3. Hi Alan! This is interesting information about how much more Californians drive than the rest of the US. Can I ask where you found the 13,636 miles number in the following: “What we’re talking about here is, individually, California drivers are averaging a bloated 13,636 miles annually.”

    thank you!

    • Sure.

      California drivers log around 300 billion miles in a year. Using 22 million as the number of registered drivers in state, I divided 300 billion miles by 22 million drivers to produce the annual 13,636 miles per driver figure. I rounded down from 13,636.3636.

  4. Good artical and now lets make some changes. First, Californian’s live in a automobile centric state and that needs to change. We need frequent and ground travel time competitive passenger transport that allows passengers to use their time productivly and reduces their carbon footprint drastically and we need to do this rapidly. Secondly, we are not talking about abolishing automobiles but providing a good alternative to wasted time and energy attributed to automobile inappropriate use.
    We need to build an electric powered passenger train system for the state, not just the cities for the entire state. It can be done and California’s will use it!

  5. I live in Siskiyou County next to the Oregon border. For the last ten years I have been comparing driving my automobile to traveling by Amtrak when I do travel outside the county. I use the IRS mileage rate to compare my travel costs to my costs of a train ticket. In every cause when traveling alone, the train is the chosen alternative: less cost.
    When traveling with my wife (two of us) I chose Amtrak. We in California need more frequent passenger train service through out the state and it will be used if its not overbuilt and uses existing proven technology. Travel from Redding to Sacramento in 2 hours by train is easily within our reach, just as travel from San Jose to Santa Barbara could easily be done in 4 hours. The appropriate technology exisites now in Germany.

  6. Californians average 36 miles per day and pay $2.50 per gallon at 20.7 mpg. At a conservative 600 gallons per year we pay $1,500/yr. So how about using an electric car with an 83 mile range per charge for the daily driving, and use another car for longer trips? (BTW, Americans own more than 2 cars per household). One can lease a Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen golf and several other EV’s for less than $200 per month, and sometimes closer to $100 per month. No bi-annual smog checks, no tune-ups, no oil changes, no gasoline, no pollution, and you get to drive in the commute lanes. And, for a lifetime of free fuel (electrons from the sun), after less than the cost of 4 years of gasoline, with an added benefit of shade for your vehicle, check out the Starport at

    • That which you wrote is accurate. No question. And, ideally, all people who drive should be driving zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs), that is, if emissions from the transportation sector in California are to be significantly cut, and in the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles basin especially.

      But, here is another reality. It comes from the Air Quality Matters blog post: “San Joaquin Valley could meet EPA’s newest ozone standard in 2037, if …” corresponding link here:

      In it I wrote: “The Editorial Board of The Fresno Bee (in a Dec. 26, 2015 editorial) stated that for California’s entire San Joaquin Valley (all 24,000 or so square miles, presumably) to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) newest ozone standard – set at 70 parts per billion (ppb) of air (an improvement from the previous standard of 75 ppb) – this will require the whole region, transportation-wise, to become fully ‘electrified’; in essence, apparently, echoing a declaration originally made by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district). The Valley has until 2037 to meet the standard.

      “As to the ‘electrified’ qualifier, what does this mean, exactly? What it means is that motor vehicles (cars, trucks, buses) plus tractors and trains must be all-electric or so it would appear.

      “And, whereas most other locales throughout the country from all indications will, by 2025, have nary any difficulty in complying with EPA’s updated rule, the Valley, on the other hand, is getting a reprieve in the form of an extension. Also according to the Editorial Board as presented in the Bee, the Valley has so far failed to meet the older, less-health-protective ozone standard. This doubtless is the reason for the pardon.”

      I then go on to write about zero-emissions vehicle purchasing incentives. To which I qualified:

      “Noble as each of these incentives may be, keep in mind that currently, registered motor vehicles in California number around 32 million (a much more conservative estimate puts the number at 27 million).”

      To this I added that Governor Brown, through a March 2012 executive order, called for one-and-a-half million ZEVs on the state’s roadways by 2025.

      Say, hypothetically speaking, by that date that the number of registered motor vehicles in California in all is 30 million, what 1.5 million ZEVs would amount to is 5 percent of the statewide total. Based on this, I make the assumption that the San Joaquin Valley’s share would be 10 percent tops, thereby placing 150,000 ZEVs in the hands of Valley residents.

      I concluded the post thus: “Regarding the total-discontinuance-of-the-burning-of-fossil-fuels-from-the-transportation-sector-in-the-Valley-by-2037 premise, for the air district, a question: Seriously?!”

      Old habits die hard and even under the most optimistic of scenarios, it will be difficult to change convention. If would-be car buyers could be persuaded to purchase ZEVs and partial ZEVs and understood that over the long-term such would have greater value (as in being cheaper and cleaner to operate) than the more common-place internal-combustion-engine-equipped power vehicles, then it seems to me there would be a greater inclination for these vehicles to be purchased in greater and greater numbers.

      It goes without saying that the infrastructure must be in place to handle increased volumes of these. That’s a given.

  7. A Carbon Fee and Dividend program is the most effective tool to change consumer behavior. A fee is charged for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted by polluters – for example, a starting fee of $15/per ton of CO2 emitted and steadily increasing by $10/ton annually. 100% of the net fees generated are returned to consumers to offset the increasing cost of fossil fuels such as gasoline, heating and electricity. Research shows that gasoline prices would increase by about $.36 in the first year of a Carbon Fee and Dividend (CF&D) program.

    CF&D policies appeal to conservatives because it is a market-based solution, not a regulatory solution. Investors and businesses can predict the cost of carbon emissions as budgets and policies are enacted. CF&D also sends a clear market signal to investors that clean, renewable energy is a good investment.

    A conservative group of Republicans, including former Secretary of State James Baker and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, called the Climate Leadership Council recently published their version of a Carbon Fee and Dividend policy. While not perfect, it is a big step in the right direction by conservatives.

    A bipartisan group has been formed in the House. It’s called the Climate Solutions Caucus. In order to become a member of the Caucus, a potential member must find a member of the opposite party and join the Caucus together. There will always be an equal number of Democrats and Republicans in the Caucus which serves as a learning tool about climate change and its effects. In the last Caucus meeting, the group learned about rising sea levels and the impacts that will result. There are 38 members of the Caucus currently.

    The California legislature has come up with its own Carbon Fee and Dividend policy, SB775. It would morph the current Cap-and-Trade policy, which expires in 2020, into a more effective policy to reduce carbon emissions. Such a CF&D policy is needed if CA is to meet it goals of a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and 80% reduction by 2050.

  8. Carbon fee and dividend has never been proven to significantly reduce CO2 emissions anywhere in the world to date. So arguments for this policy are pure speculation based on abstract and questionable theories in regard to addressing climate. The only place it has been tried is British Columbia, and government data shows BC had less percentage reductions in CO2 than most other provinces in Canada (other than the oil provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan for obvious reasons), and most of the reduction in BC happened in 2008 to 2010 during the recession. Spending revenue from a carbon fee or tax on actual climate solutions can be much more effective. Meanwhile there are plenty of other tools that are already available which Fee and Dividend people don’t ever mention: renewable energy requirements, subsidies, efficiency standards for appliances and vehicles, feed-in tariffs for renewable energy, and power plant emission limits, are all proven to be highly effective–unlike fee and dividend. People pushing Carbon Fee and Dividend do not seem familiar with effective climate policy and so are easily taken in by the clever sales pitch. Unfortunately, Fee and Dividend is like a cult, with the most devout followers seemingly impervious to evidence or facts, and they proselytize and try to convert everyone to bet the world on this wild guess.

  9. Great ceasar’s ghost! I’ve always thought way too many people depend ob their cars in California. I’ve ever saw people drive to the store one block AWAY! What’s REALLY goin on California???🤔

  10. In retrospect, I apologize for this flawed presentation and quite innocent mistake.

    I mistakenly conflated per-capita with per-motorist: “per-capita” is per-person which is not the same as per-driver. The two (per-capita and per-driver) are obviously not one and the same and this being the case, thus they can not be interchanged.

    That said, being that “per-capita” is NOT the same as “per-motorist,” this changes everything.

    Bottom line is, annual per-capita California driving is NOT 1.5 times the national (per-capita) average.

    I apologize for the error and for any confusion created on account of it.

    Thank you.

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