Americans have already dumped the pump

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

This picture of Eight Mile Road illustrates the choice Stockton has to make between farmland and development

It’s getting lonely out here: Americans are driving fewer miles and consuming less gas

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.

A Metro Express bus near the campus of UOP- courtesy San Joaquin RTD

Public transit use is on the rise even in Stockton thanks to Metro Express- photo c/o San Joaquin RTD

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.

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Categories: Transportation

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia founded SCL in March of 2012. He holds degrees from UCLA as well as Johns Hopkins University and currently works as the Chief Operating Officer at Ten Space in Downtown Stockton, and previously worked as a researcher/analyst for a congressional agency in Washington DC. The views expressed here are solely of the author.

3 Comments on “Americans have already dumped the pump”

  1. Jon Seisa
    June 25, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

    Actually, it really seems to be attributed to low, if not absent, disposable income, caused by unemployment, a lack of full time employment, under-employment and part time employment, and over-taxation, where the average American annual income, according to some estimates, has currently plummeted to 1979 standards and is, unfortunately, the new norm. So less money translates into shifting reprioritization of personal needs. There is less to go around. As a result people are forced into alternative cost-effective modes of transportation, not by preferential personal choice. So this is why public transit use is up, walking and biking. Basically, these are really grave indicators of a shift from a less affluent society to a more thrifty and sacrificial society, if not transitory towards an eventual destitute society. And the return to city living is merely a desperate option to be logistically close in proximity to daily amenities because of the unaffordability to maintain vehicle maintenance, parts, new tires, auto insurance, license and registration fees and high costs for fuel. So centralizing one’s self for survival appears to be the strategy to overcome personal vehicular immobility.

    • David Garcia
      June 26, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

      Intuitively, this argument makes sense. Since 2007, median household incomes have declined overall. However, the decline in per capita VMT began three years before income started to fall. In other words, people started driving less in 2004, three years before incomes took a dive in 2007. The recession certainly may have contributed to fewer VMT, but the decline had already started. Take a look at this graph:

      Compared to the chart referenced in the article (http://www.ssti.us/2013/02/per-capita-vmt-ticks-down-for-eighth-straight-year/), you can see that there is not much correlation between income and VMT. For example, VMT continues to plummet despite modest gains in income since 2011.

      Moreover, public transit rates have been increasing since the mid 90s when incomes were soaring and continue to do so during the recession, indicating a weak relationship between public transit ridership and income (though we would need a regression to now exactly how weak).

  2. Jon Seisa
    June 26, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    What you say seems to make sense; I’ll have to check out the graphs more carefully, thank you. But isn’t a percentage of that rider-ship subsidized, i.e. for welfare recipients? IDK, David. I just sadly think a lot of common ordinary people just don’t have any money these days. I mean, everyday I look out at my busy street and I notice things that weren’t there before. There are more homeless pedestrians, couples, young and old, than ever before, not druggies, but like your grandparents or newlyweds trying to appear they are not homeless; and more wandering recycle-garbage collectors rummaging through residences garbage cans, less new automobiles driving the streets and more aging jalopies sputtering by, more neighbors at home in the afternoon because they lost their jobs, more well-dressed people now shopping at Food-4-Less when they didn’t before, and so on. I have even noticed less people at my bank, like 4/5th less, and there used to be 6 tellers behind the window, and now there is only one. And there is no longer Rush Hour Gridlock here between 3pm and 7pm as I recollected for eons up to a year ago. The freeways are relatively wide open except for a few historically problematic intersections. It cannot be due to population relocation to the urban core, because this is already URBAN SoCal. I think people just don’t have jobs and are staying home; hence less traffic. I lived through the 1970s Recession, and there was nothing like this, not at all; this is bad, extremely bad, believe me.

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