Driving In Reverse

It hasn’t made the local papers yet, but the Portland metro area is leading in yet another international trend: a decline in driving.  The Toronto Globe and Mail calls it “peak car”—the fact that in developed economies around the world, the decades-long pattern of people driving more each year has stopped.  In fact, in the United States, the Globe and Mail story reported,“the distance driven by Americans per capita each year flatlined at the turn of the century and has been dropping for six years. By last spring, Americans were driving the same distance as they had in 1998.”

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re ahead of this downward curve, according to Clark Williams-Derry, who’s been chronicling the less-driving trend in a series of blog entries for the Seattle based think tank Sightline Institute. He titles it, “Dude, Where Are My Cars?”  He says that in Washington and Oregon, it’s not just the amount of driving per person that has been dropping, but the total amount of driving.  Despite population growth in both states, total vehicle miles per year peaked between 2000 and 2002.  Citing Oregon Transportation Department data, Williams-Derry reports that total driving in our state fell every year from 2002 to 2007—before the world financial crisis and the resulting recession—and that now Oregon has about the same statewide traffic as it experienced in 1999 (see his chart here).

So where are our cars?  Williams-Derry offers several possible answers.  He also rejects the obvious argument that we’re driving less because the economy is down and more of us are out of work:  that just doesn’t explain the 2002 through 2007 drop when the economy and employment were still strong.  More likely contributing factors: higher fuel prices; changes in lifestyle (flexible work commutes, telecommuting, online shopping, social media replacing face-to-face networking); and in Portland, Seattle and other Northwest cities, changes in settlement and development patterns—more pedestrian-friendly mixed use development that encourages walking, biking and shorter driving trips.

But his most interesting finding is about demographics.  First, we’re aging, and seniors drive less.  Americans aged 40 to 55 drive about 12,000 miles per capita per year.  Between 55 and 65 it’s about 10,000 miles, and it drops off steadily after 65, to under 4000 miles for Americans in their 80s.  Williams-Derry mined these numbers from a Transportation Research Board presentation that also showed a more surprising source of reduced driving: young people.  In 2008, Williams-Derry points out, Americans under 40 drove significantly less than persons in the same age group drove in 2001—a downward shift unique to the 20-to-40 age cohorts (Clark has a remarkable chart in this blog post that shows the shift).

Whatever the reasons for the steady drop in driving, it’s already having big impacts, Williams-Derry reports.  Recently-built toll bridges (Tacoma Narrows in Washington and Golden Ears in British Columbia) are not meeting their revenue projections, casting more doubt on the financial feasibility of proposed bridges like Seattle’s Lake Washington bridge replacement and the Columbia River Crossing.

Longer term, the downward driving trend of the past decade calls into question our state and region’s plans for future transportation investment.  For years, of course, we’ve had policies and plans that call for reducing reliance on the car and providing more transportation choices.  But the investments in those plans always overwhelmingly emphasize road projects: more lanes to move more cars and trucks.  It’s time to take a closer look at those plans.  

We’ve long known that we can’t build our way out of congestion.  Now, it appears, more and more of us are avoiding crowded highways.  We should be helping people travel those other paths, instead of throwing more and more money at a traffic problem that may not be getting worse.