The year 2005 looks like the inflection point for “peak car.” That’s when Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) peaked nationwide, and began declining thereafter.
Pennsylvania was one of the top 10 states that saw the biggest decline in vehicle miles traveled:
We are seeing this phenomenon in our urban areas like Philadelphia, where car ownership is trending down even as population is trending up. But we’re also seeing the same story reported in metros big and small all across the state.
And one key point to note about this is that it’s not correlated with the economic downturn. This looks to be a long-run trend, driven by reduced interest in driving among Millenials and the younger generation.
What’s more, Pennsylvania is a very elderly state, and the share of the elderly population is expected to get larger. Overall, state population is shrinking.
So to sum up, in the areas where Pennsylvania’s population is aging and shrinking, driving is trending down as people become too old to operate a car. And in the areas where the population is growing, driving is also trending down. Any way you cut it, PA is driving less and will likely continue to drive even less.
So why on earth does the transportation funding debate center around the expectation of more driving? Why are all these highway capacity expansion boondoggles coming back from the dead, when everything points to lower traffic volumes?
The transportation debate we should be having is about why we’re still subsidizing driving so much with lower-than-average taxes and fees on motorists, when people are driving less and less. Instead of committing to a new round of subsidies for private car use through capacity expansion projects we can’t afford, we should be talking about pricing road and highway access to manage traffic congestion, and using that money to expand transit service in the areas that Pennsylvanians are voting for with their feet, with their location choices.
As Barry Schoch says, the urban areas subsidize rural roads and highways in the emptiest areas of the state – the areas that are shrinking. We need to redirect the money away from the shrinking areas to the metro areas that are growing, and away from subsidizing private cars to expanding the other modes (rail and bus transit, biking, walking) that are seeing record demand.