Americans Are Driving Less; They Need More Options to Get Around Affordably

After a steady increase during the 1980s and 1990s, VMT, or vehicle miles traveled, have leveled out in the United States and are actually decreasing in the wake of the Great Recession.  Even during the slow recovery period we’re now in, Americans are keeping their foot off the gas pedal.

Americans are holding on to their cars. There are more than 240 million passenger vehicles in operation nationwide. Only in 2008 were there more cars on the road in the United States. The average age of these vehicles in circulation has steadily increased from an 8.4 year average in 1995 to 10.8 in 2011.

It seems likely that people are holding on to their cars not necessarily because they want to, but because there’s no other way to get around. A 2010 poll found that the majority of adults in the United States say they have no choice but to drive as much as they do and most would like to spend less time in their cars. Transit may exist for many of these people, but the hassle of accessibility doesn’t translate into more ridership for many cities around the country.

A 2010 poll found that the majority of adults in the United States say they have no choice but to drive as much as they do and most would like to spend less time in their cars. Photo by Flickr User: freefotouk

A 2010 poll found that the majority of adults in the United States say they have no choice but to drive as much as they do and most would like to spend less time in their cars. Photo by Flickr User: freefotouk

Whether it’s the recession or a response to high gas prices or something else, people are driving less but holding on to their cars. People who care about cities, affordability, and the environment need to capitalize on this change in behavior by making it easier and obvious for people to keep their VMT low even when the economy gets stronger, gas prices drop, etc.

That means policies and funding for transit, biking, and car-sharing that reflects a fundamental shift in how we view and invest in transportation networks.  We need policies that support infrastructure for multiple mobility options instead of policies that prioritize driving over everything else. If we want to offer a way for people to drive less long-term, dependable and convenient transportation options are a must.

This argument I’m making isn’t particularly novel to anyone outside of the Capitol. Cities and regions are getting it and moving forward with innovative ways to fund transit on their own. In at least 33 metropolitan regions around the country, large investments are being made in streetcars, light rail, metro rail, or commuter rail projects in 2012. I wrote about Los Angeles’ efforts not too long ago. In 2009, Oklahoma City voters approved MAPS3 program, which included $130 million worth of mass transit improvements in addition to other public works and redevelopment projects.  The Research Triangle area has three counties and two metropolitan planning organizations working together on funding a dedicated transit system, with Durham County already approving a sales tax increase for its part. Here in Chicago, we expect our new Infrastructure Trust to be used to invest in transit upgrades and expansion.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and her Senate colleagues have developed a bipartisan bill - Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) - which would reauthorize the nation's surface transportation programs for the next two years. Photo credit: U.S. Senate Photo Studio

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and her Senate colleagues have developed a bipartisan bill - Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) - which would reauthorize the nation's surface transportation programs for the next two years. Photo credit: U.S. Senate Photo Studio

Congress desperately needs to get on board. Public transit is not partisan. Saving people money on getting to work and the grocery store is not partisan. But both Republicans and Democrats have failed for more than three years now to reach common ground on a multiyear transportation bill to replace the 2005-09 legislation.  We are on the ninth short term extension, which will expire on June 30. Forty seven Members of Congress are meeting now to decide the fate of public transportation in our country. Such a critical issue deserves a thoughtful approach that articulates a transportation vision for the country for the next 50 years and beyond.