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February 6, 2016

Big Money Riding on Question of Whether Decline in Vehicle Use Will Continue


President Barack Obama drives a simulator of a high-tech car as he tours the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va., today.

Vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver peaked in the United States in 2007.

Since then, there has been a 0.5 percent annual decrease in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per licensed driver, according to Trisha Hutchins of the Energy Information Administration.

A lot is riding on the question of whether the trend will continue in the decades ahead.

The number of miles the American people drive every year makes a big difference for highway planners, for car manufacturers, for lawmakers who must find the money to pay for road building, and for the people — car buyers, taxpayers and toll users — who pay for all of it.

Transportation experts at the VMT panel discussion at the Energy Information Administration’s conference Tuesday grappled with the questions of whether the trend in fewer miles driven is mostly a hangover from the recession, how much of it is due to demographic and attitudinal changes, and whether millennials will develop a keener appetite for driving as they get older.

After previous recessions, from 1973 to 2001, total vehicle use either never dipped below its pre-recession level or bounced back within 18 months, noted Don Pickrell, an economist with the Department of transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

But that hasn’t happened since the 2007-2008 recession. “We have yet to return to the pre-recession level of vehicle use, even five, and now, six years after it started,” Pickrell said.

But he also said that the longer term trend for the growth rate in vehicle use — based on a five-year moving average to screen out the statistical “noise” — is that growth has been declining by about a tenth of a percent a year for four decades.

“In about 2009 — with a little bit of a nudge from the recession — it actually turned negative and has remained there,” he said, meaning that there is now declining vehicle use.

Nancy McGuckin, a transportation analyst with Travel Behavior Associates, told the conference that attitudes about the personally owned car are changing.

“It’s really got the car manufacturers a little nervous because they’re thinking: how do you sell a vehicle to someone who doesn’t think of it as freedom of the open road?” she said.

“You’ve all seen car commercials, they are all empty roads and they are driving around and it is just fantastic. But this is not our experience in vehicles and its especially not this [millennial] generation’s experience. They grew up in the back of a car stuck in traffic. And they do not believe that a car represents freedom.”

She said that “many of the factors that have pushed VMT upward in the past 50 years or so have changed and might be headwinds against further growth” in VMT.

“A lot of the things that increased VMT over the 1990s and early 2000s might be lessening,” she said.

Among the factors she cited:

  • The percentage of families with children is at historic lows;
  • Women’s entry in the workforce probably is “nearly saturated;”
  • “migration from the city to the suburbs has also probably saturated;”
  • “very favorable attitudes toward dense living among the Millennials especially.”

“I don’t see us going back to the far-fringe suburbs as being the ideal,” she said.

All big ideas for members of Congress to ponder when they take up the next long-term transportation authorization bill.

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