Don't drop by; just text me
But in some ways, the recent decline in VMT seems counterintuitive. The U.S. economy is slowly rebounding, and the population continues to grow while people are also driving until later in life, theoretically adding more trucks and passenger cars to the road. So is there more to this trend than economics?
The interesting thing for Roy Kienitz, transportation infrastructure consultant and former undersecretary for policy at the Department of Transportation, is that American drivers actually started changing their individual driving habits years before the recession started.
The overall number of miles traveled by road peaked just before the market collapsed, but the number of VMT per capita peaked in 2004 and declined over the next eight years until today, according to Kienitz's research, which is based on publicly available data.
Last year, the U.S. economy continued on a modest upward trend, reaching 3 percent growth in the last quarter. Yet 2011 was one of the steepest years in VMT decline. "This tells me that this is something that's speeding up, not slowing down," said Kienitz.
But, he added, "I think it would be too much to say we understand everything that's going on here."
The population shift toward urban centers and the rise in electronic communication are other possible reasons for reduced vehicle use. Living in a city makes bicycling and public transit more convenient, and the widespread use of cellphones and Web-based calling services like Skype may be making in-person visits less of a priority, especially among youths.
"Virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact among young people," said Michael Sivak, research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "Furthermore, some young people feel that driving interferes with texting."
The cha-ching factor
Sivak was lead author on a study published earlier this year, which examined the reduced rate of young people getting driver's licenses. Among the 15 economically advanced countries he analyzed, he found that places with a higher number of Internet users correlated with lower licensure rates among youths between 20 and 24 years of age -- including in the United States.
The initial expense of a car and the cost of insurance were also identified as reasons why young people were less likely to get a license.
This finding is bolstered by ongoing research by Ray Bingham, research professor in psychiatry at the University of Michigan, who also works at the Transportation Research Institute. In a survey of 160 teens and parents in the Midwest, he found that cost was the No. 1 reason youths weren't getting their licenses and starting to drive.
But as employment increases among youths and in the broader population, cost-related barriers linked to car use could disappear and driving rates could spike to all-time highs. The Federal Highway Administration predicts that the total number of VMT in the United States will go up again once the economy makes a stronger recovery.
According to the "2011 Urban Congestion Trends" report, "This unique timing makes the implementation of time-saving traffic operations strategies all the more important."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500