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.
Americans are still driving less than before the pandemic
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.
Many are optimistic about the decarbonization blueprint
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.
Higher gas usage may point to pandemic era travel patterns
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.
Designing inclusive public space can help people be more active
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.
Transportation agencies are facing the consequences of induced demand
Induced demand. It’s a concept that used to be popular only among the wonkiest transportation experts, and now gets covered by outlets ranging from the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal. Governing calls it “the almost universally accepted concept” that almost no one understands, while Strong Towns calls ignorance of the concept “professional malpractice.” With new tools and a better understanding emerging, some transportation agencies are now beginning to wrestle with the implications.
Partially automated vehicles increase VMT
Numerous studies have raised concerns that self-driving cars could flood our roads with more traffic, as commuters travel longer distances and cars drive themselves in and out of central cities to avoid parking. Fully autonomous vehicles are probably a ways off, giving policymakers time to grapple with the potential impacts, but new research suggests that even common features found in cars today like adaptive cruise control and lane guidance lead to increased vehicle miles traveled.
Gas prices can have ripple effects on development patterns and travel options
Gasoline prices have clear impacts on development patterns, according to recent research that adds new evidence for the long-term impacts of transportation pricing signals. The new study shows that wage growth and low gas prices contributed to high rates of suburban growth in the 1980s and 1990s, measured in terms of deforestation. Those trends have reversed as gas prices have risen.
Millennials aren’t driving as much as previous generations
The consumption choices and lifestyle preferences of Millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—and their differences from those of the previous generations have repeatedly piqued academic and policy makers’ interests. Although some suggest they might just be slower in adopting previous trends, a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that they are a generation that prefers to drive about 8-9 percent less than Generation X and Baby Boomers, and that they might continue to drive less as they get older.