The massive shift to remote work during the pandemic altered the way many offices operate and increased interest in the potential for widespread telecommuting to help reduce traffic, transportation emissions, and other harmful impacts. We have reported several studies, however, that suggest remote work simply lets people drive at different times of day and for purposes other than commuting. A new study backs that finding.
Several states and many local governments are growing more interested in measuring vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as a key indicator of transportation emissions levels and other unwanted impacts. But measuring VMT, especially at the local site level, can be more difficult than it seems. A new study in the Journal of the Planning Association points to data sources, shortcomings, and considerations for measuring VMT in the future.
Through a combination of carrots and sticks—but mostly carrots—the federal government has encouraged state DOTs to take ambitious steps to lower the environmental impacts of transportation and to invest in more sustainable travel options. Two years into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), notes Adie Tomer at Brookings, it is still hard to know the impacts. Many states are still operating under the status quo. Others, however, including many SSTI partners, are seizing the opportunity to bolster ongoing local sustainability initiatives.
Driving less is one of the keys to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, and to reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Most states have seen an increase in per capita vehicle miles traveled over the last 25 years. There are exceptions, however, where political action, multimodal investment, or the development of compact neighborhoods acted to pull VMT numbers down, says a new report by the Frontier Group.
In one sense, departments of transportation are in the business of making it possible for people to travel less, or to at least spend less time traveling. But choosing to build capacity and reduce delay effectively speeds up drivers rather than shortening the length of their trips—in an era when driving less is acknowledged as a first-order climate change mitigation strategy. A recent article in Planetizen proposes a solution. If efforts were focused more on allowing people to conduct their daily affairs—shopping, banking, working, health care—over the internet or on the phone, the author writes, it might make a dent in vehicle miles traveled (VMT): a reduction that decades of tepid investment in multimodal options have not been able to achieve.
Conventional thinking holds that congestion stifles the economy. Sitting in traffic or having it take longer to get someplace important would seem to be a drain on productivity. On the contrary, a group of Texas researchers looking at travel survey data from the Puget Sound area of Washington State found that travelers exposed to traffic congestion and travel delay will simply find a means of getting from point A to point B that doesn’t rely on driving. Their novel approach incorporates data on whether people choose to live in places that support their preferred travel options or way of life, addressing the question of residential self-selection.
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.
The Biden administration’s newly released National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization represents an historic mission alignment among federal agencies to meet an economy-wide goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2050. The U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, have developed this joint strategy to guide the decarbonization of the transportation sector—the largest GHG contributor, currently generating roughly one-third of U.S. emissions.
When gas prices rise it seems reasonable to expect people to economize by driving less. According to one indicator brought to light by Eno Center for Transportation, gasoline usage in the U.S.—and by extension driving—hit an all-time high during fiscal year 2022. During the same period gas prices were the highest we’ve seen—adjusted for inflation—since the great recession that began in 2008. But the U.S. is swiftly returning to pre-pandemic levels of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), perhaps due to pandemic-era travel patterns and relocations.
Many agencies have renewed their focus on making transportation systems more equitable for all travelers, or they are being pressured to do so by advocates. Travelers who are Black, Latino, Native, or Asian can feel unsafe in public spaces due to exposure to law enforcement, or the hateful or racist behaviors of others. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought awareness of this situation to the fore. The ability to stay active during the pandemic—especially by walking—contributed to better physical and mental health. For those who did not have access, or felt unsafe outside, and could not stay active, outcomes were not so rosy. New pandemic-era research from Melbourne, Australia, shows that Asians may have walked less in order to avoid racist confrontations and because they didn’t have access to good places to walk.