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New figures from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) show that the number of miles driven by Americans continues to stagnate, even amidst economic recovery.
According to the agency’s December 2013 Traffic Volume Trends report, vehicle-miles traveled per capita fell in 2013, making it the ninth consecutive year of driving decline. Total miles traveled increased by 0.6 percent, behind the 0.7 percent rate of population growth in the United States in 2013.
The FHWA’s numbers support the findings of a series of U.S. PIRG reports that document a reduction in driving across the nation, a trend that has persisted over the last decade and is led by the Millennial generation. This slowdown in driving presents further implications within the context of long-term trends:
- Since 2004, the average number of vehicle-miles traveled per capita has fallen every year; 2013 saw about a 7 percent decline since the 2004 peak and was the lowest since 1996 – a roughly 17-year span of stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel.
- The number of total miles driven in 2013 was lower than that of the 12-month period ending February 2005. This nearly nine-year period of stagnation in total vehicle miles traveled, never before seen in U.S. history.
“Our current federal policy remains anchored in the old Driving Boom assumptions that are no longer valid,” said Jaimie Woo, U.S. PIRG Tax and Budget Associate. “The factors that had fueled the rise in driving over the previous several decades – rapid suburbanization, motorization of the public, labor force expansion – are hitting their natural limits.”
The continued stagnation in driving suggests that traffic growth cannot justify new and costly highway expansion projects, especially as repairs to existing roads and bridges remain neglected. The slow growth of traffic congestion could largely be addressed through improvements to public transportation infrastructure and a wider array of travel options – especially since traffic congestion tends to occur at chokepoints in urban areas where public transit and pedestrian investments typically have the highest payoff.
“Our nation’s leaders need to take their head out of the sand. They should evaluate transportation investment priorities in light of the changes over the last decade, especially as the shift away from driving has been led by younger generations who represent America’s future travelers,” added Woo. “In light of the upcoming expiring transportation bill, Congress should pass legislation that shifts investments away from costly highway expansion projects toward public transportation and other increasingly popular alternatives.”
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