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From New Orleans to New Haven, driving is on the decline

Posted by on December 4th, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Austin Day 1-9

People riding bikes in Austin, Texas.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

A new report Wednesday from U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows, among other things, that there are many ways to look at the same numbers.

Most Americans, including most Portlanders, “still” drive for transportation? True.

The use of cars is on the longest slide ever recorded, one that seems only partly related to economic trends? Equally true.

And as US PIRG’s latest report, Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities shows, this isn’t just because of the rapid drops in supposedly “weird” enclaves like Portland or Austin. It’s happening almost everywhere. To quote from PIRG:

Cover of USPIRG report.
Download PDF here
  • The proportion of workers commuting by private vehicle—either alone or in a carpool—declined in 99 out of 100 of America’s most populous urbanized areas between 2000 and the 2007-2011 period averaged in U.S. Census data.
  • From 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per resident fell in almost three-quarters of America’s largest urbanized areas for which up-to-date and accurate Federal Highway Administration data are available (54 out of 74 urban areas).
  • The proportion of households without cars increased in 84 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas from 2006 to 2011. The proportion of households with two cars or more cars decreased in 86 out of the 100 of these areas during that period.
  • The proportion of residents bicycling to work increased in 85 out of 100 of America’s largest urbanized areas between 2000 and 2007-2011.
  • The number of passenger-miles traveled per capita on transit increased in 60 out of 98 of America’s large urbanized areas whose trends could be analyzed between 2005 and 2010.

This is the latest in a series of reports by US PIRG, a left-leaning legal/research/advocacy group, that have drawn on federal data to highlight a trend that relatively few people had noticed: just about every available indicator is showing that (as the cliche now goes) the country’s “love affair with the automobile” seems to be ending.

“Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars continuing to enlarge our grandfather’s Interstate Highway System, we should invest in the kinds of transportation options that the public increasingly favors.”
— Phineas Baxendall, USPIRG

“Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars continuing to enlarge our grandfather’s Interstate Highway System, we should invest in the kinds of transportation options that the public increasingly favors,” researcher Phineas Baxendall wrote.

The typical response to this claim has been that the weak economy has been throwing off the numbers. But the trend started in 2004, four years before the last recession hit, and the trend has continued even as the U.S. economy has been recovering.

Today’s report, which analyzies the driving decline at the metro-area level, finds further evidence: This decline of driving is no bigger in hard-hit cities like Miami or Tucson than it has been in resilient cities like Pittsburgh or New Orleans.

Here in the Portland area, we were hurt moderately by the recession, ranking 30th of 74 metro areas in increased unemployment from 2006 to 2011. And the decline in our driving over that period was slightly faster than average (we rank 24th of 74).

The Oregonian’s story last month was completely correct that 71 percent of Portland-area workers drive alone. And (as a BikePortland reader mentioned to me recently) it’s just as true that 99 percent of adults pay rent, mortgage, etc., for the places they live. But that doesn’t mean they want to. Today’s report is the latest sign that, increasingly, Americans (Portlanders and otherwise) want other things more than another hour behind the wheel.

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9wattsjimJohn LascurettesTodd Boulangerpaul g. Recent comment authors
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I was just at a PBOT Burnside High Crash Corridor Working Group meeting yesterday where I heard that PBOT is projecting Burnside’s traffic volume to remain flat for the foreseeable future. This, while new housing is being completed along the corridor practically every month.

This trend raises all sorts of possibilities of re-greening our infrastructure.


And not a moment too soon.
And yet there are still folks out there building brand new car dealerships on the edge of town. Thanks, US PIRG & Bikeportland.

The future is human powered.

John Lascurettes

71 percent of Portland-area workers drive alone. And (as a BikePortland reader mentioned to me recently) it’s just as true that 99 percent of adults pay rent, mortgage, etc., for the places they live. But that doesn’t mean they want to.

Nice. Filing that one away for later use. 🙂

Todd Boulanger
Todd Boulanger

…I like rent free living too…but underside a Portland bridge, prison and my parent’s garage all have draw backs too. 😉

John Lascurettes

Ha. Tongue firmly in cheek I assume. 🙂

I took it to mean, many would like to own their home, but most of us have to rent (either from a landlord or from a mortgage owner).

Trek 3900
Trek 3900

Americans love their cars as much as ever. The drop in miles driven is caused by economics. Gas is expensive and has been for several years. Baby boomer are nearing retirement and can’t blow money on gas like they did in the past. The job market is gradually getting worse. The unemployment numbers have gone down recently only because so many people have dropped out of the job market. Those people lucky enough to have a job are afraid that next week they will not have one so they are hoarding cash. Since the dot-com bust the economy has been in a secular bear market (these phases do have booms within them which we’ve seen for the past 4 years, largely due to Fed money printing). The bears usually last about 17 years, then 17 years of good times so this one could be over in 4 more years except that the huge government debt will likely cause some severe economic pain not normally experienced, so the future is very uncertain now. THAT is the main reason for the current slow economy – people are afraid of bumbling incompetent government from the local level to Washington DC. As long as we have massive uncontrolled deficits and debt, and a totally dysfunctional government, people will be fearful. The recent health care law train wreck makes it so businesses cannot plan for their future – they have no idea what types of expensive mandates will come out of Washington so they don’t hire more people – they are hoarding cash. Want to learn more? Don’t listen to me – check out these websites – hear what others are saying and decide for yourself:


“Americans love their cars as much as ever.”

Oh, really? I think you’re leaving out how much those who bike love biking even more –


will p
will p

While I share your opinion that the most recent recession does not explain the decline in vehicle miles per year, I think that I can make a good argument that it is exactly our 21st century economy that is driving the decline and it is not likely to be reversed.

Consider these reported facts:

1. Workforce participation has been on the decline since 2001.

2. Wages have been on the decline for a generation, falling from an inflation adjusted high in 1974. While vehicle ownership costs have not been declining. (Was there a tipping point in 2004-06 where the cost exceeded benefit for low/middle income citizens?)

3. 20% of American workers now work from home at least one day a week. That is up from 5% in 2001. One advocacy groups study expects the number to increase 60% in five years. Number one reason people like working from home? Avoid commute (of any kind). http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2013/02/18/one-in-five-americans-work-from-home-numbers-seen-rising-over-60/

paul g.
paul g.

I think you reflect the tenor of the press release, but I don’t think the press release really reflects the content of the report. The report admits that most of the effects they observing seem to be related to:

– An aging population that travels less overall
– Increased use of telecommuting / working from home
– Decreased labor force participation

And the conclusion of the report admits that they need far better data to make solid policy conclusions.

This doesn’t stop them from making policy conclusions, but the problem that I see is that the evidence seems to be that individuals are simply traveling LESS, not traveling via alternative means.

The report supports a policy recommendation that we should not continue to assume ever increasing MPV. But it does not necessarily in my view support a recommendation to redirect those dollars to alternative transportation.

For instance, one could just as reasonably argue that we should redirect the dollars to high speed broadband, for example, to support telecommuting, or that we should prepare our cities for a greying and homebound elderly population.


Driving is about as rewarding of a thing as you can do. It is best if you have a car with some performance under the hood. There is nothing like just heading out with no destination in mind, just drive for hours, music on or off- either way


thanks, jim.