This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

December 17, 2008

U.S. Driving Decreases for the Twelfth Straight Month

Aerial photo of heavy traffic on a highway, with four lanes going in each direction.

The traffic on U.S. roadways has been a bit lighter for the past 12 months.
Credit: Warren Gretz, NREL

People in the United States drove 3.5% fewer miles in October 2008 than they did in October 2007, making October the twelfth consecutive month of year-to-year declines in U.S. vehicle miles traveled, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). From November 2007 to October 2008, U.S. residents drove 100 billion fewer miles than the year before, marking the largest ever continuous decline in U.S. driving. October alone saw a year-to-year drop of 8.9 billion vehicle miles, which is the largest October decline since 1971. And while the DOT report doesn't try to explain the drop in driving, an October report from HNTB Companies says the decrease is partly due to a shift toward public transportation. A nationwide poll showed that more than 24 million U.S. residents—11% of the adult population—are using public transportation more than they did last year, and 16% say they expect to increase their ridership in the coming year. Although many were motivated by high gasoline prices, they also discovered the convenience, traffic avoidance, and environmental benefits of public transit. See the press releases from the DOT and HNTB.

That explanation is backed up by American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which reports a year-to-year increase in public transportation trips of 6.5% for the third quarter of 2008. That's the largest quarterly increase in public transportation ridership in a quarter century, and it occurred even as gasoline prices were declining. Light rail had the highest increase in ridership, followed by bus, commuter rail, and heavy rail travel (subways and elevated trains). Intercity travel by heavy rail is also on the uptick, as Amtrak experienced an 11.1% increase in ridership for its 2008 fiscal year, which ended on September 30. The number of rides taken on Amtrak trains increased by 28.7 million for the year, marking the sixth straight year of ridership gains. See the press releases from APTA and Amtrak.

Travel within the United States is expected to drop even more this holiday season, according to HNTB. The company's most recent nationwide survey found that 45% of U.S. residents plan to stay home for the holidays. Of those that do travel more than 50 miles, 75% expect to drive, while only 17% plan to fly, 4% will take the train, and 2% will travel by bus, all of which suggests that the shift to mass transit is greater for work commuters than for people taking vacations. The travel plans are also bad news for the airline industry, which saw a year-to-year decline in travelers of 8.4% for the month of September, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). That's the seventh consecutive month of year-to-year declines for the U.S. airline industry. But thanks to the weak dollar, international travelers are helping to prop up the U.S. airlines. Compared to 2007, U.S. airlines carried 2.8% fewer domestic passengers in the first nine months of 2008, but 3.2% more international passengers. See the press releases from HNTB and BTS.