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Colin Peppard’s Blog

U.S. Driving Rates Are Up... But For How Long?

Colin Peppard

Posted March 2, 2011

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     Stacked on the onramps, Traffic jam, after a day of work, 2 hours of traffic to get home, Seattle, Washington, USA

Auto use in the U.S. plunged during the record high gas prices we saw a few years ago. But driving has been steadily creeping back up, and the Department of Transportation announced today that American's drove about 3 trillion miles in 2010, marking a 0.7 percent national increase, and the 3rd highest number of miles driven on record.

The 8 states from Texas to Kentucky that make up the Federal Highway Administration's South Gulf region saw some of the largest growth, posting a 1.3 percent increase in vehicle travel in December 2010, compared to the previous December.

But these trends are not necessarily what are happening everywhere in the country. In the Pacific Northwest, the Sightline Institute finds that traffic is falling across the region. In Washington, for instance, traffic within Seattle has fell slightly in both 2008 and 2009, and highway traffic statewide has been either falling or growing very slowly as well. To the south in Oregon, statewide traffic has been falling since 2002, and in transit- and bike-friendly Portland, auto use per capita has fallen 12 percent since 1996.

Officials in both the Portland and Seattle metro areas, where much of driving in the Northwest occurs, have been at the forefront of taking a more enlightened view on transportation investments, focusing on more sustainable transportation strategies such as public transportation, biking and walking, and road management.

And as oil prices continue to increase beyond $100 a barrel, will we see more Americans reducing their auto use by turning to public transit or other strategies to manage the rising cost of driving? Recent news reports from Los Angeles and North Carolina indicate that this might be the case. However, if Congress chooses to cut transportation spending along the lines of the House Republicans' proposal, it's unlikely that most Americans will have access to high quality transit, bike, and pedestrian facilities, or well managed roadways to allow them to respond to high oil prices.

Image by Wonderlane, used under a Creative Commons license.

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