Americans Continue To Drive Fewer Miles In 2007

<p>Not since oil prices peaked in 1981 have vehicle-miles-traveled dropped as they have for the past 18 months. Rising gas prices, expanded public transportation, aging of the population, and urban revitalization deserve much of the credit.</p>
May 21, 2007, 6am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"The average American motorist is driving substantially fewer miles for the first time in 26 years because of high gas prices and demographic shifts, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal highway data. The growth in miles driven has leveled off dramatically in the past 18 months after 25 years of steady climbs despite the addition of more than 1 million drivers to the nation's streets and highways since 2005."

According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, Americans in February, 2007, drove almost 2% fewer miles than in Feb. 2006. Notwithstanding a .3% increase in March, the reduced mileage is remarkable when compared to the "average annual growth rate of 2.7% recorded from 1980 through 2005".

"You have demographic shifts, traffic congestion and increased gas prices," says Ed McMahon, senior research fellow at the Urban Land Institute (ULI). "For the first time in recent history, the rate of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is not increasing at the rate it was for 25 years. It's having an effect and is changing in subtle ways the way people think about their driving."

"The nation has not seen such stagnant growth in driving since 1981, when the USA staggered through an oil shortage and a recession. Gas prices reached an all-time high of $3.223 in March 1981 when adjusted for inflation in today's dollars."

Even the .3% VMT increase in March constitutes a decrease when considering that the "nation's population and workforce have grown by just over 1% a year."

Soaring gas prices are a major contributor to the VMT reduction. "Seven of 10 Americans are combining trips and taking other steps to reduce driving, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll May 4-6."

Expanded public transportation also plays a major role. "More people took public transit last year than at any time in 49 years. ‘We're seeing suburban locations create new transit systems,' says William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "They're expanding into areas that never thought they needed transit because they could do everything by car."

Finally, "many Americans, particularly young, upwardly mobile singles, are moving downtown and revitalizing cities", as opposed to continuing the suburban-commuter lifestyle of their parents, according to ULI's McMahon.

{Editor's note: Accompanying chart shows responses as to how rising gas prices affect behavior}.

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Published on Friday, May 18, 2007 in USA Today
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