D.C. area sees drop of driving in 21st century; nationwide driving has decreased by 7.6 %

The number of people who drive to work and the total number of miles traveled by car in the Washington region have dropped by almost 5 percent since the turn of the century, a study released Wednesday finds.

As teleworking from home increases, baby boomers enter retirement, car ownership and the percentage of people with driver’s licenses drop and the cost of gasoline remains high, Americans are driving 7.6 percent fewer miles per year than they did in 2004.

Compiled from federal and state databases, the report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group gives a snapshot of a transportation evolution that may portend where the nation — particularly urban America — is headed.

It is the latest of several recent white papers that cite waning use of the automobile to argue for changes in public policy away from the highway-oriented focus born during the suburban expansion of the 20th century.

“There is a shift away from driving,” said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst at PIRG. “The cities in this report are home to most of America’s population and are engines of the economy. Policy leaders need to wake up and realize the driving boom is over. Instead of expanding new highways, our government leaders should focus on investing in public transit and biking for the future.”

The PIRG report debunks the belief that recent declines in driving should be blamed primarily on the recession, with data that show the cities with the biggest drop in driving suffered no greater unemployment peaks than those cities where driving declined the least.

“From 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per resident fell in almost three-quarters of America’s largest urbanized areas,” the study said.

The report said most urban areas have experienced a corresponding increase in use of public transit and bicycle commuting, while the number of households owning a car declined.

For almost 35 years beginning in 1970, Americans drove more miles each year and urban congestion spurred expansion of beltways and crosstown expressways. But since about 2004, the increase slowed and then reversed itself.

Since then, the number of cars per licensed driver has decreased by 4 percent; the percentage of driving-age people who have licenses has dropped to its lowest in 30 years; and new technology has made working from home an option chosen by more people in every city the report surveyed.

The Federal Transit Administration recorded a 20 percent jump in the number of people using public transportation in the first 11 years of the 21st century.

The Washington area ranked second only to New York in the decrease in people commuting to work by car. New York experienced a 4.8 percent decline, Washington experienced a 4.7 percent decline and Austin was third, with 4.5 percent. Even Houston, a city notable for its lack of mass transit options, saw a slight drop in the number of car commuters.

Washington saw an overall decline of 4.9 percent in roadway miles traveled between 2006 and 2011. The report said transit ridership increased by 7 percent throughout the region.

PIRG concluded that resources should be redirected from expensive new highways “and toward the maintenance and repair of our existing infrastructure.”

It recommended that transportation planning be weaned from outdated expectations that the number of miles Americans drive yearly will continue to rise.

“Short-term and long-term transportation plans are filled with highway projects that were planned under very different expectations of future travel growth,” the report said.

Many of the policy changes the report recommended are already in place in Washington and some of its suburbs. Encouragement of the popular Capital BikeShare program and installation of bike lanes have correlated with a spurt in bike travel. The District has pondered reducing parking requirements for construction, citing trends reflected in the numbers found in the PIRG report.

“Private vehicle ownership is going to fade away in this next era of transportation, at least in the urban areas or hyperurban areas like D.C.,” said Karina Ricks, an urban planner and former associate director at the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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