Research continues to shed new light on the post-pandemic changes in travel behavior and access to opportunities. A recent webinar with SSTI and Accessibility Observatory examines the changes in accessibility across the country, while a new study by Replica highlights new commute patterns in two cities. Both analyses show the lasting impacts of the pandemic on peak travel times, giving transportation professionals valuable insights for adapting planning and design in ways that will improve overall access and system performance.
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.
Changing travel behavior may be confounding our traditional notions about transportation demand as evidence shows that people were staying home more even before the pandemic. The debate continues as to whether remote and hybrid work schedules lead to less driving overall, or just distribute driving differently throughout the day. Yet scholars are finding that flexible, work-from-home schedules may be associated with people being more active.
Research from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) finds that strategies such as providing parking cash-outs, offering commuter benefits, and eliminating subsidized parking could drastically reduce commute VMT in cities. The study also concluded that the implementation of these strategies and the resulting decline in VMT could reduce congestion, emissions, and serious traffic crashes.
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.
More studies over the years have shown us that the price and availability of parking has a strong influence on people’s travel choices. A ten-year-old study from New York, for instance, called attention to the influence of parking availability on people’s decision to drive to work. Several years later, I led a study connecting long-term parking growth to citywide increases in car commuting. Now a new study by a cohort of researchers across North America, including myself, makes that connection even clearer by drawing a direct line from residential parking ratios to household VMT.