High Gas Prices + Recession = Unprecedented Decline in Car Travel

The Wall Street Journal (April 28, 2009) had an excellent article on the dynamics of automobile-based travel in the current economic environment. Americans drive 8.6 billion fewer miles in 2008, part of a longer term decline that began in 2007, according to private sector traffic information provider INRIX. That meant congestion eased in most major U.S. metropolitan areas last year.

Rush-hour congestion — defined as moving slower than free-flowing traffic — in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan markets fell 29% in 2008 versus 2007, said Rick Schuman, a vice president at Inrix, a Washington company that measures traffic patterns. It fell an additional 7% in this year’s first quarter.

The fall was the result of two economic events: a dramatic rise in gas prices in the summer of 2008 followed by a slow but deep economic recession that offset falling prices.

In regions most affected — many of which also have been hit hardest by the housing crunch — the average travel time fell as much as 10%. Also critical is the reduction of unpredictable traffic jams caused by fender-benders and vehicle breakdowns that frequently accompany congested commutes.

In some cities the drop is more pronounced. Congestion has abated 36% in Atlanta; 57% in Tucson, Ariz.; 68% in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and 70% in Daytona Beach, Fla. In Riverside, where Ms. Caldera lives, it fell by 57%. Among the largest 100 metropolitan areas, congestion shrank in all but Baton Rouge, La.

The decline in miles driven began when gasoline prices crept above $3 a gallon in November 2007. By the time prices began to retreat from their $4-a-gallon high in mid-2008, the number of unemployed Americans began to rise.

No drop of such significance has been previously recorded. With the exceptions of a few short-lived dips during previous recessions, Americans have driven more every year since national record-keeping began.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.