U.S. driving miles up. VMT still lag pre-pandemic totals: Report

U.S. vehicle travel miles (VMT), for two consecutive years (2021 and ‘22), rebounded some, this after VMT during 2020 retreated to 2.903 trillion, down from 2019’s record high of 3.262 trillion miles driven. Total miles driven during 2021 and 2022 were 3.14 trillion and 3.169 trillion, respectively, according to U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) statistical data. It should be noted 2021 and 2022 figures are preliminary.

So, from these numbers, what can be readily seen is the affect Covid has had on aggregate driving activity domestically.

From the time the Great Recession (begun in 2008) ended in 2011 up to year 2020, the annual vehicle-travel-miles profile was positive, meaning aggregate driving miles rose.

By the end of 2020 – and even during that year – it became abundantly clear annual driving figures had taken a turn. The dip (a difference of -359 billion miles) from those amassed during the previous year was indeed noticeable. In fact, such in the U.S. in percentage terms had declined by 12.367 points. But, even before quarantine restrictions were fully lifted and people were going about daily life reflective of that of much better days, driving was rebounding, so much so, in fact, that by the end of the following year, this activity had jumped 8.16 percent; not quite making a full recovery, but telling, it was, nevertheless. Between 2021 and 2022, though there was a VMT increase, the rise was considerably smaller (a difference of +29 billion miles), a percentage gain of 0.924 points, that is, provided all of my calculations are right. All of which could be seen as an indication normalcy was returning to everyday life, generally.

However, it was during the latter year that we saw tens of thousands of tech workers getting laid off and many of those who were still employed and who could work remotely, still continued to do so. As such, this had an effect on driving, however small, it was impacting nonetheless.

Interestingly, average per-motorist per-annum driving miles all during this time, held remarkably steady. According to U.S. DOT, FHWA data, average per-motorist driving distance is 13,476 miles annually. Remembering this being for the entire country, what this breaks down to are tallies in excess of a 1,000 miles logged monthly on average. That speaks volumes especially given that vehicles are out and about on America’s roadways for basically five percent of the time. That means that said vehicles are parked the remaining 95-or-so percent.

An aside

Now – and you’ve probably guessed that I was going to get to this – from the standpoints of protecting the environment and that having to do with global warming, well, if one were to compare average per-driver yearly vehicle travel miles to average annual per-capita VMT which, in the U.S. in 2020 was 9,816 (See: “Where air protection’s concerned, average per-vehicle vehicle miles traveled the more practical metric”) the latter is representative of that driven as it relates to all citizens, whether licensed to drive or not. That said, the mileage driven each year by motorists is more meaningful in my opinion, because the motorist is the person actually doing the driving.

How so? A case-in-point example is presented below.

As exemplified in “Running extra: In solving for X, not always is there just one approach,” I wrote: “Other data I was able to learn was that per gallon of gasoline burned, emitted into the atmosphere is 8,887 grams of CO2 and that for the ‘typical’ car operated in America, a fuel economy rating of 22.0 miles per gallon of gasoline and a yearly driving distance of 11,500 miles were used. In solving for the carbon dioxide emitted per vehicle, this equation: CO2 per gallon/miles per gallon x miles = CO2 emissions, was utilized. When plugging in all the pertinent numbers, the figure of 4.6 metric CO2 tons was yielded.” Keep in mind, one metric ton equals 2,204.62 pounds which also equals 1 million grams.

At any rate and on the other hand, had the average per-motorist per-vehicle VMT figure been replaced with the per-capita number, in solving for CO2 per-vehicle output, the answer would have been lower, all else being the same. So it would have made a difference and that, in the final analysis, is why it matters.

Last updated on Apr. 14, 2023 at 9:00 p.m, Pacific Daylight Time.

⁃ Alan Kandel

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