The Driving Boom -- a six decade long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States -- is over.

So says a new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and a think tank called the Frontier Group. Written by Tony Dutzik and Phineas Baxandall, the report provides stark detail to a trend that many have sensed is underway.

Download the report: A New Direction; Our changing relationship with driving and the implications for America's future. Also, simultaneous with the release of the report, Strong Towns is releasing a podcast interview with one of the authors, Tony Dutzik. Click here for the podcast.

Some highlights from findings of the report:

  • Americans drive no more miles in total today than they did in 2004. Per person, we're at levels not seen since 1996. After decades a steady increases, a fifteen year divergence from the trend is beyond significant.
  • Americans took nearly 10 percent more trips via public transportation in 2011 than in 2005. The nation also saw increases in commuting by bike and on foot.
  • A return to the steady growth in per-capita driving that characterized the Driving Boom years is unlikely due to the aging of the Baby Boom generation, the projected continuation of high gas prices, anticipated reductions in the percentage of Americans in the labor force, and the peaking of demand for vehicles and driver’s licenses and the amount of time Americans are willing to spend in travel.

The implications here are enormous. For decades we have overbuilt auto-based transportation infrastructure based on traffic projections. The induced demand -- the effect of more capacity inducing people to drive more -- has been pernicious, particularly in the way it perversely self-reinforced faulty projections and justified underlying assumptions that, ultimately, are not defensible. That we've run out of our capacity to induce evermore miles driven is a fate that was inevitable.

Now the real difficulties start. Projections of funding gaps in transportation budgets -- numbers that were too massive to even discuss honestly in the context of our political system -- all relied on continued growth in miles driven per capita. Without the revenue that comes from such increases, these massive gaps become unfathomable.

It also undermines the arguments for continued growth in highway investments. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where Americans agree to pay significantly more to maintain systems they are using significantly less. Without significantly more investment, the capacity of these systems will degrade precipitously in short order. We have some hard choices ahead.

The first set of hard choices come with projects in the pipeline. Last July at the Strong Towns Network, our friend Josef Bray-Ali wrote about the I-710 project near L.A. and the debate going on regarding traffic projections. When questioned about declining traffic counts, project engineers brushed Josef (and others) off with suggestions that these were short term trends that would reverse once recession was over. They even suggested there would be a "catch up" period to get back to historical norms. Here's a quote from the project spokesman:

The Ports re-evaluated their growth projections after the recession and made adjustments. The revised projections show slower growth in Port activity in the next decade, but the 2035 total TEU estimate remains the same: 42.7 Million. In other words, the Ports anticipate to handle 42.7 Million TEUs by 2035, even if growth is slower in the next few years.

This is a $5 billion project, largely predicated on bogus projections. Do we have the courage to stop this folly and others like it, big and small, when developers, contractors, politicians and others all still want to believe the in the magical Growth Fairy? 

All of this also reinforces just how important walking/biking infrastructure is now becoming. I've been very skeptical of the way we are doing rail in this country (Transit-oriented Parking) and have a hard time supporting any rail project that not serving existing productive land use patterns (as opposed to being a speculative catalyst for top-down engineered growth -- a more PC version of what we did with highways five decades ago), but walking and biking infrastructure within established neighborhoods is almost always a high return investment. This is especially true when it is done with an incremental mindset. We should be narrowing traffic lanes and adding bike lanes anywhere we have or want a productive street.

Make sure and listen to that podcast -- it is a good listen -- and read the report. They are both worth your time. Then share them with every engineer and public official that you know. The next time you go to that meeting and they say they need to expand the lanes due to traffic projections, you throw down this report. If that doesn't work, call me.

This insanity needs to end. The New Direction report really helps.


You can get more of Chuck Marohn's insights by reading his book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the ongoing conversation on how to make yours a strong town.