Americans Ditching the Driver's Seat
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Photo by Ben McLeod

Could this be the end of America’s love affair with cars?

Over the years, driving has slowed down, leveled out, and then finally, with the dramatic increase in gas prices, declined. Now, we are “witnessing the largest sustained drops in driving that this nation has ever seen,” says Robert Puentes, a fellow in the metropolitan policy program of The Brookings Institution, which released a report last week that reveals startling facts about the decline of driving in America:

  • The number of miles that Americans have traveled in their cars – a measurement known as “vehicle miles traveled” or VMT – has been falling since 2007.
  • From October 2007 to September 2008, Americans drove 90 billion fewer miles than the same time period the year before.
  • For the first time ever, Americans are driving fewer miles than the total amount of roads available.
  • At the same time, transit use is at its highest level since the 1950s.

According to the press release:

“America is experiencing its longest and steepest drop in driving, signaling a permanent shift away from reliance on the car to other modes of transportation. In the coming years, this shift will have far reaching implications for transportation, environmental, energy, and land-use planning.”

What are some of these implications?

  • Lower fuel consumption improves energy security, as well as mitigates climate change
  • Fewer cars on the road reduces traffic fatalities
  • Urban centers are becoming denser and more accessible

In economic terms, there is a big question that needs to be addressed. Since Americans are driving less, they’re paying less on the gas tax, so there are less revenues for transportation projects.

Some tough choices will have to be made. Should Congress raise the gas tax on the federal level to cover any shortfall? Should states adjust their own fuels tax policies? In light of the decline of driving, what kind of new infrastructure will America need? Should the government pump more money into beltways and highways, or should it invest in the kind of transportation that many people have already embraced, like trains and subways?

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