Americans are still driving less than before the pandemic

By Chris McCahill 

Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. totaled 3.17 trillion last year, according to preliminary estimates from FHWA. That is a one percent increase from 2021 and a nine percent increase from 2020—the height of the pandemic—but still nearly three percent lower than VMT in 2019. After accounting for population growth, the average American drove four percent less in 2022 than in 2019 and six percent less than the highest point in 2004. 

VMT trends in the U.S. Source: FHWA.

Meanwhile, the total hours lost to congestion for a typical driver increased 42 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to INRIX, indicating that the slight increase in VMT likely represents a considerable shift in travel patterns—from decentralized off-peak travel to more peak period travel on major routes (i.e., typical 9-to-5 commuting). This is still nearly 50 percent lower than it was before the pandemic, however, which suggests we might be seeing the start of a “new normal” in daily traffic patterns, as people have more flexibility in working remotely. 

Total hours lost per year for a typical driver in the U.S. Compiled from INRIX’s Global Traffic Scorecards.

These emerging trends have important implications for transportation agencies as they plan for future capacity and operations along major routes. As Tony Dutzik at Frontier Group has long noted, traffic volumes continue to fall short of national forecasts from FHWA, AASHTO, and the U.S. EIA, despite those estimates being revised downward year after year. Not only does this give agencies a reason to reassess planned capacity improvements, but also to consider measures like shifting transit service toward off-peak periods and weekends. And while slower VMT growth is essential for meeting ambitious climate goals, the continued rise in pedestrian deaths suggests that higher levels of traffic congestion might have had an unintended safety benefit before the pandemic. 

Photo Credit: Wendy Wei via Pexels, unmodified. License.