Vehicle Miles Traveled Continues to Increase

Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) for all roads and streets increased 5.0% in March of 2016 compared to March 2015, according to the Traffic Volume Trends, a monthly report published by the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Office of Highway Policy Information

According to FHWA, Traffic Volume Trends is based on traffic data from the Highway Performance Monitoring System and on data submitted to the FHWA by State highway agencies. The State highway agencies collect the data through permanent automatic traffic recorders on public roadways.

VMT is an important indicator to the community development world, as it is often used in studies of topics like walkability, urban form, and the prevalence of the suburban lifestyle.

FHWA estimates travel for the month of March to be 273.4 billion VMT, an all-time.  This includes 81.7 Billion rural miles and 273.4 urban miles. The rate of increase may shock many, in light of the current popularity of commuting via public transportation, bicycling, and walking, in addition to the so-called “back to the city” movement.

Fortunately, it seems the FHWA’s 5.0% figure may be a bit misleading.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis compiles the TVT data into a moving 12-month total of VMT, a less volatile statistic. According to a report Advisor Perspectives, a leading publisher of news for financial advisors, the less volatile 12-month moving average was up 0.41% month-over-month and 3.2% year-over-year.

The data becomes still flatter upon further analysis. VMT data published by FHWA does not account for population growth. Increases and decreases reported by the Administration can therefore be misleading. According to the report by Advisor Perspectives,

If we factor in population growth, the 12-month [moving average] of the civilian population-adjusted data (age 16-and-over) is up 0.33% month-over-month and up 2.1% year-over-year.

…The population-adjusted all-time high dates occurred a decade ago in June 2005. The latest data is 5.41% below the 2005 peak, but off the -8.62% post-Financial Crisis low in March of 2014. Our adjusted miles traveled based on the 16-and-older age cohort is about where we were as a nation in September of 1997.

That’s reassuring, but 2.1% is a substantial rate of increase, nonetheless. The question remains: why is VMT increasing so rapidly in the face of so many movements intended to curb it? Are such efforts failing, and if so why?

Pat’s Comment: I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest, although I’m no expert in modes of travel, that the FHWA is operating under a paradigm that suggests that VMT is a positive indicator. Simply browse through their recent press releases and get a feel for their attitude toward highway construction, expansion, etc. I’d love to hear some of your views on the topic in the comment section, below!

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