Travel Up in April as Economy Levels Off

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has released its monthly estimate of travel in the U.S., and travel demand, measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), is up 1.2 percent over last year. While cumulative travel–the amount of travel in 2010 to date–is still down from 2009, travel seems to be picking up steam as the economy appears to have troughed.

The moving 12 month average peaked in 2008 at 3.024 billion vihicle miles traveled (although it had largely leveled off around 2006), fell to under 2.952 billion in 2009 largely because of the economy, and is now picking up speed after two consecutive months of positive VMT growth (see Table 1).

The implications for transportation policy are significant. The U.S. DOT has demoted congestion reduction as a key goal in its strategic plan. Compare the 2006-2011 plan prepared under Secretary Mary Peters with the current 2010 draft plan under Secretary Ray LaHood. While the current plan puts justifiable emphasis on freight movement as part of its economic competitiveness goal, it ignores the role of passenger vehicle traffic and the broader problem of congestion.

More problematic is the DOT draft strategic plan emphasizes “livability”–as if traffic congestion is not a livability issue–and almost exclusively focus on improving pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit choices and travel to the exclusion of automobiles. This is problematic because the bulk of the increased travel in March and April is VMT on urban arterials–the very roads that must be shared with pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit buses. In short, the current plan is a recipe for rising traffic congestion.

Stay tuned.