Americans driving less, but state not getting the message, advocates say

Bad traffic on your way to work? Regardless, Abe Scarr of the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (ConnPIRG) has some news for you:

“The driving boom is over.”

In other words, the decades-long increase in driving in the United States that began after World War I  is finally starting to reverse. Americans today don’t drive any more miles than they did in 2004, according to a new report by ConnPIRG, and they don’t drive any more miles per person than they did in 1996. They do, however, get around more by mass transit, biking and walking.

Data from the Texas Transportation Institute show that Americans were stuck in traffic for 421 million hours less in 2011 than in 2005.

“We are currently witnessing the largest sustained drop in driving in American history,” wrote the author of a recent Brookings Institution paper.

It isn’t just about the economy or gas prices either, the authors of these reports argue. The downward trend in driving –- or at least the flatlining -– started before the economic recession. ConnPIRG says it began in 2003; the Brookings report suggests it may have roots as far back as 2000.

And “millennials” -– loosely described as the age group between 18 and 34 –- drive far less, ConnPIRG notes. A majority of those surveyed said they’d happily forgo a car for an Internet connection or a smartphone. Only two-thirds of people 16- to 24 years-old had a driver’s license in 2011 -– the lowest proportion since the 1960s.

“They show clear preferences for walkable communities, for having opportunities to not use a car,” Scarr said of the younger generation.

In Connecticut, Scarr said the downward trends started closer to 2008, which suggests the economy may have been more of a factor here. Still, public transit use here is at an all-time high. Last year, Metro-North’s New Haven line recorded 38.8 million rides, the highest ever for the line despite a major disruption during Superstorm Sandy. Bus ridership has also increased significantly across the state, with central Connecticut seeing a 41 percent jump in 2012.

With those statistics in mind, transportation advocates say it’s time for governments to change their priorities. Investment should focus on rail and bike infrastructure, they say, rather than road and bridge expansions.

So far, such a shift has not occurred, and it’s not clear that government is getting the message. The federal Energy Information Administration estimated in 2006 that Americans would drive more than 3.3 trillion miles per year by 2012. The actual figure ended up being less than 3 trillion miles.

So investments still focus on costly expansion projects, based on assumptions that more drivers will hit the roads. In Connecticut, advocates say too much federal money for capital transportation projects on roads and bridges goes toward expansion.

“The state is still planning to spend 41 cents of every road and bridge dollar on expansion projects,” said Steve Higashide, an analyst for the local advocacy group the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

That number is actually lower than it used to be; between 2007 and 2010, it was 61 cents of every dollar. But it is still “an incredibly high amount,” Higashide said.

For context: Rhode Island spends 11 cents; New York, 14 cents; and Massachusetts, 26 cents.

A huge chunk of that 41 cents will go toward the expansion elements of a huge multi-year project to repair and widen the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge on I-95 in New Haven, also known as the Q Bridge.

“When you look at these megaprojects, they really eat up a huge part of the budget that could otherwise go to maintenance or other needs,” Higashide said.

Advocates have also pointed to the state’s plan to widen a three-mile section of I-84 in Waterbury that could cost around $150 million per mile. It is based on traffic studies that were completed in the 1990s and early 2000s, which may now be outdated. One such study used data that appeared to be from 2005, stating that “I-84 currently handles over 100,000 vehicles per day. This number is expected to increase to about 127,000 vehicles per day by 2030.”

It’s unlikely that estimate would hold today, Higashide says.

“So you have these old traffic studies that basically assume people are going to just keep driving more and more infinitely into the future, and we are seeing that that is not the case.”  

Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, pushed back on such concerns.

“Have you driven during rush hour on I-84 in Waterbury?” he said. “Anyone who thinks we don’t need to move forward with a strategic project to improve capacity there is living on another planet…this project is a no-brainer.”

He added that statistics on driving in Connecticut do not appear to show a downward trend in the DOT’s view. “The numbers vacillate from year to year.  We’re not seeing any noticeable decline in traffic congestion around the state.”

Data from the state Council on Environmental Quality do show that driving has been on a decline in Connecticut. It peaked at about 25 daily miles driven per Connecticut resident in 2001. In 2008, it began a slight downward trend; by 2011, the average resident drove just under 24 miles daily.

Nursick pointed out that Connecticut is making unprecedented investments in public transit through the CTFastrak Hartford-New Britain busway and the high-speed rail line between New Haven and Springfield.

Advocates have applauded such commitments, but wondered what the “next generation” of public transit investments in the state will be after the federal dollars for those projects run out in a few years.

“The culture is changing,” Higashide said. “A question that we have is whether change is happening fast enough.”