More miles driven means more emissions, period, and more, not less, are driving

Six months ago – to the day – I posted “American traffic, travel and transportation profile – 2013.”

In that posting I emphasized: “Beginning with aggregate vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration reports in its ‘Traffic Volume Trends: December 2013’ survey that the estimated 2013 cumulative VMT was 2.9723 trillion, up 0.6 percent compared to year 2012 which means that clocked off last year were another 18.1 billion more traveled motor vehicle miles.”

Supplied also were statistics regarding public transportation and airline use.

‘Bout time for a VMT progress report, I’d say.

Last Friday, Aug. 29th, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) put out a press release: “New Data Show U.S. Driving at Highest Level in Six Years: Nearly Three Trillion Miles Traveled Over Last 12 Months Supports Call for Greater Transportation Investment,” and in it the FHWA expressed: “Americans drove more than 2.97 trillion miles between July 2013 and June 2014, the most recent month for which data are available. In the first half of 2014, drivers traveled 1.446 trillion miles – the largest since 2010 and the fourth-highest in the report’s 78-year history.”

In addition, the agency, also in the release, called for increased highway investment.

Meanwhile, Streetsblog USA Editor, Tanya Snyder stressed, “While the FHWA’s press release trumpets that ‘American driving between July 2013 and June 2014 is at levels not seen since 2008’ – adding, alarmingly, a call for ‘greater investment in highways’ – that’s not the whole story. Yes, the total driving rate now approximates where it stood in 2008, when VMT was in freefall. But it’s still way down from the peak – 3.05 trillion miles – in 2007.”

What has transpired here should lead one to immediately ask if the call for increased highway funding has more to do with extending and/or expanding highways or more to do with highway infrastructure maintenance and repair. There is a huge difference.

As a matter of fact, Snyder, in quoting the Frontier Group’s Tony Dutzik wrote: “‘If rising VMT, according to the FHWA, fuels ‘calls for greater investment in highways,’ then, by the same logic, falling VMT would result in reduced need for investment in highways. Right? Yet, I can’t recall FHWA ever making that argument. And we have continued to plow money into highway expansion over the last decade.’”

My question now is: Has this investment resulted in any improvement in terms of reducing congestion plaguing America’s highways, which, by the way, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, have a 42 percent congestion rate. I believe that this is the most important metric to consider here.

And, even though the aggregate VMT increase continues, according to Snyder, per-capita VMT is and has been in retreat.

“If you look at the per capita driving rate, it’s still dropping,” declared Snyder. “In fact, it’s as low as it’s been in nearly 17 years.”

What this says is with motorists individually driving fewer miles but with total VMT rising, this must mean there are more motorists on the road.

All of which tells me that if they build highways, motorists will come in droves. This points not to better traffic flow patterns and by association fewer emissions, but an invitation to more highway usage.

Unless there is a tremendous inclination toward hybrid and zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) use reflected by a corresponding influx of such vehicles hitting the roadways relative to the number of vehicles relying exclusively on internal-combustion-engine power for propulsion, then the way I see it, the emissions already in the air will only be added to rather than more being removed. And, sad to say, I see this as a “lose-lose” proposition should the latter be the case.


– Alan Kandel

This post was last revised on Feb. 26, 2020 @ 7:41 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.