Even with gas prices down, Americans cut back on driving

Miami HeraldDecember 16, 2008 

It's cheaper to fill up your car's gas tank now than it was a year ago, but Floridians and other Americans are logging fewer miles on the road than in recent years.

A new study released Tuesday supported by federal data shows a steady decline in U.S. driving habits since 2006. The drop in miles driven could signal the need for more availability of public transportation and changes in the allocation of gas-tax revenues, experts say.

"After years and years of steady driving growth, things have changed rather dramatically," said Robert Puentes, an analyst for the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program who co-authored the new driving study. Brookings is a nonprofit public-policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

U.S. motorists drove about 9 billion fewer miles in October than they did in the same month a year ago, according to federal data collected from 4,000 automated traffic recorders on highways and other main arteries like Interstate 95 and State Road A1A. Between November 2007 and October, drivers clocked 100 billion fewer miles -- the largest continuous decline in driving the United States has seen.

As they drove less, South Floridians also relied more on public transportation.

Tri-Rail ridership was up 32.9 percent from July to September over the same period in 2007, making it the second-fastest growing commuter rail system in the United States, according to national data. Tri-Rail routinely attracted more than 16,000 riders a day in September.

Miami-Dade Transit officials said Metrobus, Metrorail and Metromover ridership also have increased this year.

"The fact that the trend persists even as gas prices are dropping confirms that America's travel habits are fundamentally changing," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

The Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area ranks 11th in the country in terms of vehicle miles traveled, the Brookings report shows. In 2006, South Florida drivers logged about 26.2 million miles, or about 4,845 miles per driver. Since then, however, the state's numbers of miles traveled per driver have dropped about 6.1 percent.

Puentes and co-author Adie Tomer cited several reasons that have contributed to residents driving less, including the fact that the Internet has allowed people to stay home for things they would otherwise have to drive to.

"Telecommuting in general is a big factor," Tomer said. "People can work from home. They can shop from home. All of that results in fewer miles on the road."

They also believe some demographic changes that led to more drivers on the road — women entering the workplace, for example — have leveled out.

Steven Polzin, director of mobility policy research at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, said Florida has seen a major drop-off in commercial traffic because of the slumped housing market and lack of hurricanes.

"We experienced a peak several years ago when there was a simultaneous combination of hurricane-recovery efforts and construction from the housing boom," Polzin said Monday. "You're not seeing those construction trucks on the road anymore, and that's caused a pretty big effect in Florida. Our travel has dropped significantly."

The Federal Highway Administration announced last week that while driving was on a decline, public transportation systems like subways, buses and light-rail systems have reported record increases in riders. Amtrak said it carried more passengers and brought in more money in 2008 than any other time in its 37-year history.

If these trends continue, Puentes and Tomer said, politicians need to direct more money to mass transit projects and less money to building new highways.

"As Congress wrestles with how to spend tens of millions of dollars, we need to think about what we need for the future," Puentes said. "Expanding the mass-transit systems has to happen because transit use is increasing but its availability is still rather limited."

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