So, smart growth advocates have been crowing for the last year or two about the decline in vehicle miles traveled. Surely this was the dawn of a new sensible era in transportation, where traffic was an occasional, not vital good. Even better that the youth were abandoning their cars at the fastest rate, as surely they would grow up to be equally skeptical of the inherent use of the car. By now the per capita vehicle miles traveled is down to 1995 levels, a dramatic fall from its peak in 2006.
This seemed like a gross statistic, worth getting behind, and that 1995 year reminded me of the National Household Travel Survey, conducted right every 6 or 8 years since 1995. The thing that I live about the NHTS is that it attempts to tally not just work trips, like the census, but also recreational and errand trips, and it does it for traffic, bikes, walkers, and transit. Work trips are only 20% of the national VMT after all.
So, for starters, here’s the total person miles traveled and trips for 1995, 2001, and 2009, along with the population in those years. *
Note that the VMT and PMT climbed thought time as you would expect them to with our continued dependence on traffic for nearly all of our transportation. But the VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) per capita and PMT (Person Miles Traveled) per capita actually fell between 2001 and 2009. PMT/capita is actually less than it was in 1995. Where did it go?
Note that traffic trips fell slightly and grew only a little in the 14 years between 1995 and 2009, while population grew by 15%. That’s your per capita decline right there. Biking and especially walking grew a lot in that time, however, outpacing population growth. Of course, biking accounts for around 1% of the trips as traffic, and walking accounts for 10%. Traffic, a tool for “mobility” over many miles, far outpaces walking and biking in miles traveled, so traffic’s stagnation is driving this decline in per capita travel.
Note also the constant decline in trips taken by each of us, not just between 2001 and 2009, but also between 1995 and 2009. We are simply finding fewer reasons to go places, even if the trips by walk and bike are growing. Walking is experiencing a renaissance, actually, almost doubling in trip numbers between 1995 and 2009.
Now look at the numbers for PMT, and PTT for all trips and for all trips up to 4 miles. It was useful to look at trips les than 4 miles because this isa where walking and biking could really shine. Bike advocates always crow about how the average trip distance is 3 MPH. Even if biking is a tiny fraction of the trips in the US, it could be. The challenge is to understand why it isn’t, and to prescribe changes that might allow more people to bike.
*Click on Tables to get better resolution versions