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Did we hit peak car?


The total number of vehicle miles traveled in the US used to largely do only one thing: go up. This is made it fairly easy for the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) to forecast how much more Americans were going to drive in the coming years – they just extended the trend line.

Below is what that looked like since the early 1970s (via FRED Economic Data). You’ll see that the total vehicle miles traveled went from somewhere around 1.1 trillion miles to around 3 trillion miles in and around the late 2000s. The shaded areas represent recessionary periods.


But then in 2007, something happened. Total vehicle miles traveled peaked, declined, and then flat lined at just under 3 trillion miles. Here’s what that looked like (the ending time period is October 2014):


However, since this was new for the FHWA, they continued to believe that this would ultimately correct itself and that total VMTs would eventually continue on their linear ascent. So here’s what their projections looked like (via State Smart Transportation Initiative):


Clearly things didn’t go as planned.

But then in May of last year (2014), the FHWA finally changed its tune and released this forecast, which had the following projections:


It outlined 3 economic scenarios: a pessimistic one, a baseline one, and an optimistic one. In their baseline outlook, they believed that the annual growth rate for total vehicle miles traveled in the US would be 0.75% over a 30 year period running from 2012 to 2042.

At the same time, they also stated that population growth would average about 0.7% per year through this same period. This means that the FHWA has more or less conceded that total vehicles traveled per person will likely remain flat, which is a significant change from previous forecasts.

Now, given their track record, I don’t think any of us should put a lot of faith in the accuracy of these numbers. Per capita driving could flat line. But it might also go down, which is what it has been doing over the past few years.

Either way, I do think it’s worth thinking about this shift. It’s a pretty big deal.

Top Image: Flickr

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