News of Driving’s Demise Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
There is an apparent schizophrenia in the information provided at transportation conferences and in regular news on Missouri’s infrastructure needs. At one moment, some will talk about how the state needs to invest more in transportation options, because people (especially young people) are abandoning their cars. But wait a moment and others will talk about critical needs to improve and expand the highway and road infrastructure around the state.
Contradictions are most often resolved by reexamining premises, and in this case that means looking to Missouri’s actual driving statistics. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data shows there is little evidence that Missourians are abandoning the roads. In fact, the latest annual estimate (from Feb. 2014 to Jan. 2015) shows that Missouri’s roads have more traffic than ever.
As the chart above shows, total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the state remained remarkably resilient through the recession, dropping by only 3 percent from peak to trough. For comparison, Saint Louis Metro’s total passenger trips decreased 30 percent in the recession. Rebound was relatively rapid, and the overall trend is steady increase, at around the rate of population growth; per capita VMT in 2014 is almost identical to per capita VMT in 2005 (959 miles per month).
Trucking, which is more directly tied to economic activity and makes up a significant portion of Missouri’s total VMT, drives much of the strength in Missouri traffic. Even if we only look at Missouri’s urban arterial road traffic (where the proportion of personal vehicles to trucks is much higher), there is no evidence of a large downturn in driving.
Urban roads saw a steeper decline in traffic during the recession (around 5 percent peak to trough) than did all roads, but even they eclipsed prerecession traffic levels in January 2015. Per capita VMT on urban arterials were also higher than they were in 2005-06.
As things stand, Missouri’s roadways carry more than 90 percent of that state’s commuters and more than half of all the state’s freight movements by value. While increased investment in transit and changing living preferences may cut into overwhelming dominance in the future, there is no data that such a transformation is underway yet.