Driving Continues to Decrease, Impacts Transportation Planning

February 13, 2015


BikingDENVER, Colo. (Feb. 13, 2015)–Richelle Rothman doesn’t own a car.  The long-time Denver resident commutes to work by bike and uses public transit for trips within the metro Denver area.  When she goes out of town, she shares a ride with friends or schedules a car through Car2Go, a rideshare business.

“It’s a lifestyle choice that I made to reduce my carbon footprint, but it turns out it is super easy and much less expensive to not own a car in the city,” she said.  “I know lots of people who don’t own a car.”

Millennials like Richelle continue to turn the tide on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in Colorado and the Southwest as they eschew car ownership and settle in cities and communities that offer public transit options for commuting to work.  According to data just released from the federal Department of Transportation,  Colorado and the majority of Southwestern states continued a 10-year trend towards lower VMT, with continued declines in how much each person drives between 2012 and 2013.

Ariz., Colo., N.M. and Wyo. all reduced their rates of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita between 2012 and 2013.  Utah experienced a slight increase and Nevada—with the lowest VMT of the Southwest states—bucked the trend as its population drove more, not less, over the past year.

The DOT data showed the biggest decrease came in New Mexico, where VMT per capita fell by 1.9% between 2012 and 2013.  New Mexico was also the only Southwestern state to experience a decrease in total VMT between 2012 and 2013.  VMT per capita fell in Colorado by 1.1%, in Wyoming by 0.6% and in Arizona by 0.4%.

Longer-term, the trend is particularly pronounced in Colorado. Of an average decline of 10% in VMT per capita in the Southwest states since driving peaked around the middle of the last decade, Colorado has seen the biggest decrease: 14% since VMT per capita peaked in 2005.  Even with a population increase equivalent to the population of Colorado Springs–about 440,000 new state residents–driving overall in the Centennial state has leveled off.

Over the past decade, VMT per capita in Wyoming fell by 13%, while Arizona and Utah have seen VMT per capita fall 12% since their peak numbers.  New Mexico’s VMT per capita has fallen 11% since its peak in 2007.    The Southwest appears to be experiencing greater decreases in driving per capita than the US as a whole: Nationally, VMT per capita has fallen by 7% since its peak in 2004.

“This overall drop in driving has become a long-term trend that state Departments of Transportation and regional planning agencies should incorporate into future spending plans,” said Will Toor, director of transportation programs at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.  “No longer should the vast majority of transportation dollars be spent on new roadway construction when data indicates that transportation funds are needed to support the desire of more people to use public transit options such as buses, light rail, bikeways and paths that link walkable communities to the workplace.”

There are several reasons for the decrease in driving, according to a report, A New Direction, Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future.  The trend of women entering the workforce has leveled out, aging baby boomers are retiring and no longer commuting to work, and more people are living in mixed neighborhoods linked to public transit.   But the outsize influence on the trend, studies show, comes from Millennials, the largest generation in the U.S.  Many of these young professionals have abstained from auto ownership, and a new crop of car share and taxi businesses such as Lyft are providing them with the flexibility to do so. By 2030, Millennials will dominate the peak driving age demographic group of 35-54 years old.

According to A New Direction, Americans increased the number of miles they drove nearly every year between the end of World War II and 2004.  Dubbed the Driving Boom, the trend ended in 2004 and leveled off, then began to drop while the increase in use of public transit hit double digits, 10%, and bike commuting increased 39%.

At first, transportation planners assumed this reduction in driving was just a blip that would last a couple of years and then people would start driving more again. But after nearly a decade of sustained reductions in driving, a blip looks less and less plausible, said Toor.

He said that if the current trend continues there will be far less need for new roadway capacity in the future and more demand for walking, biking and transit as alternatives to driving.


Will Toor, Director of Transportation Programs, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project:  (303) 447-0078 ext. 6; (303) 591-6669; wtoor@swenergy.org

Richelle Rothman, Transit and Bike Commuter, Doesn’t Own a Car: (303) 264-9584; rrothman@habitatmetrodenver.org. She works at Habitat for Humanity in Denver.