Today is National Dump the Pump Day, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The day calls for citizens to leave their cars at home and embrace public transportation. But based on the data, it looks like many people have already done that.
By almost every metric, car use is on the decline across the United States. We are driving less and guzzling fewer gallons of gas while ridership on buses, subways, light rails and other forms of public transportation continues to climb. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the numbers
While many may attribute the decline of driving to the recession, the actual mileage we record has been on the decline since before 2007. In 2004, the per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the US peaked at over 10,000 and has been declining ever since. As you can see from the chart in the following link, the decline in VMT began before the housing crisis— albeit slowly– before taking a drastic plunge in 2007. In 2012, VMT dropped to its lowest level since 1996. We may be experiencing what some experts have dubbed as “peak driving,” in that we have reached our limit for how many miles we will drive. In the mid 2000s, this concept seemed laughable, but faced with new statistics, it appears as if less driving may be the new norm.
The decline in VMT corresponds with a rise in public transportation ridership. Since the mid 90s, ridership has steadily increased. In 2012, 10.5 billion rides were recorded, the second highest total since 1957 (which is particularly impressive given that public transportation in the Northeast was knocked out by Hurricane Sandy for an extended period of time). In Stockton, I have noted that the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit has increased public transit use tremendously while the Altamont Corridor Express has also risen in popularity. Even biking is become a more popular form of commuting, growing by 47% since 2001.
Not surprisingly, our consumption of gas is also slowing down. Since 2007, demand for gas fell 6.1%, going from 9.3 billion barrels of oil per day to 8.73 in 2012. This decline in gas consumptions has had a negative effect on our country’s gas stations. According to the data from National Petroleum News, the number of gas stations nationwide has fallen by eight percent (nearly 14,000 stations) since 2002.
Why is this happening? The obvious answer seems that high gas prices have forced us to change our transportation patterns. However, it turns out that there is only a weak correlation between gas price and VMT, according to the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI). Somewhat surprisingly, the SSTI actually found a fairly strong correlation between VMT and the density of urbanized areas. Translation: as people return to city living, they don’t drive their cars as much.
It’s clear that decreasing VMT and increasing public transit ridership are real trends, not just anomalies. We are driving less, relying on public transit, bikes and our own feet to get us to where we need to go. Sadly, our spending on infrastructure fails to reflect these new trends as we continue to spend the vast majority of funds on highways while neglecting public transit, which is overtaxed in several US cities.