Report: 21st Century Transportation

Moving Off The Road

A State-by-State Analysis on the National Decline in Driving
Released by: Iowa PIRG Education Fund

After sixty years of almost constant increases in the annual number of miles Americans drive, since 2004 Americans have decreased their driving per-capita for eight years in a row. Driving miles per person are down especially sharply among Millennials, America’s largest generation that will increasingly dominate national transportation trends. But some skeptics have suggested that the apparent end of the Driving Boom might be just a temporary hiccup in the trend toward more driving for Americans. By the time Americans took notice of the decline in driving, the economy was in deep recession. Would economic growth bring back rapid increases in driving? Doubts about whether the Driving Boom has ended make it easier to postpone choices about transforming our transportation system or enacting reforms that disrupt well-established interest groups.

This report for the first time presents government data on state-by-state driving trends. It analyzes which states drive more miles per-person, which states have reduced their driving the most since the end of the national Driving Boom, and how state changes in driving behavior correspond to other changes such as growing unemployment or urbanization. 

Forty-six states plus the District of Columbia, including Iowa, witnessed a reduction in the average number of driving miles per person since the end of the national Driving Boom. North Dakota, Nevada, Louisiana and Alabama are the only states in the nation where driving miles per capita in 2011 were above their 2004 or 2005 peaks. Meanwhile, since 2005, double-digit percent reductions occurred in a diverse collection of states: Alaska, Delaware, Oregon, Georgia, Wyoming, South Carolina, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Florida.

The fifty states plus the District of Columbia offer a useful natural experiment to examine different factors behind America’s reduction in driving since 2004. Examining the commonalities and differences in driving trends among states can provide insight into the potential causes behind the downturn in driving and the direction of future trends.

This study finds that declining rates of driving do not correspond with how badly states suffered economically in recent years. On the contrary:

  • Among the 23 states in which driving miles per person declined faster than the national average, only six saw unemployment increase faster than the nation as a whole.
  • Among the 10 states with the largest declines in driving per person, only two rank among the ten with largest increases in unemployment.
  • Among the 23 states where driving declined faster than the national average, only 11 saw faster-than-average declines in the employed share of their working-age population.
  • Among the 10 states with the greatest reductions in the employed share of population, only two were also among the ten states with the largest reductions of driving (Georgia and the District of Columbia).

The evidence suggests that the nation’s per capita decline in driving cannot be dismissed as a temporary side effect of the recession. While certainly a contributing factor and an economic rebound could be expected to have some upward lift on driving, the recession does not appear to be the prime cause of the fall off in driving over the past eight years. Nor is it clear that future economic growth would lead to a resumption of the postwar Driving Boom. Policy makers can stop wondering whether American driving trends are changing. They should focus carefully on these trends, and start adapting policies to match them.
 

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