US traffic continues to slip - full year estimates for 2011 down 1.2%

September 24, 2012

2012-09-24: Full year estimates of vehicle-miles traveled nationwide in 2011 suggest traffic in continuing decline. For the calendar year 2011 the estimate was 2.93 trillion vehicle miles traveled (TVMT) vs 2.97 TVMT in 2010, 1.2% down. We're 3.3% below traffic levels of the last boom year 2007.

The financial crisis and following recession saw traffic drop 1.8% 2008 on 2007.

2009 saw another decline, about 0.7%, 2010 a small recovery of 0.3% and 2011 further slippage, 1.2%.

There's no good data for this year, but no evidence of any recovery.

Per capita VMT drop 7%

The population has been growing, so of course in per capita terms the traffic declines are larger - about 7%. And the decline in miles traveled per capita goes back to 2004 when the number was 10,120 miles traveled per person.

2005 and 2006 saw that number essentially flat, a decline 0.1% each year probably within the estimate's margin of error.

2007 was 0.7% down on 2004, but 2008 at 9,780 was down 3.3%. Since then per capital travel has dropped off another 3.6% to 9,420.

At 9,420 miles per capita travel in 2011 was 685 miles less than in 2007 and 700 miles less per person than in 2004.

With 2010 data the latest available declines in traffic (vehicle miles traveled) have been evident across the country.

The biggest drops appear to have been in CA, NY, FL, MI, PA.

TX saw a sharp drop 2008 and 2009 but may be in recovery.

VA, MD, MA, MN, WA, OH, IN, NJ, MO, GA, NC saw below average drops in VMT.

The economy

Cause of the decline no doubt is the economy - the reductions in income, employment and wealth associated with the 2008 housing bubble burst and financial crisis and the sharp recession in 2008 and the near economic stagnation 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The years of overall economic stagnation have actually seen per capita real incomes continue to fall.

Median real household income around $55k in 2007 and 2008 has slid steadily to around $51k at present according to estimates by Sentier Research (see graph nearby) as reported in the Wall Street Journal (2012-08-24.)

That's nearly 8% down - one month's income gone in a year.

Per capita traffic tracks median real household income quite closely.

On that basis there's no need to see deeper structural changes in play - though it seems compellingly plausible that the development of internet and mobile communications will allow an increasing proportion of work, shopping and financial transactions to be done without travel. Maybe that's a damper on traffic mostly still to come.

Toll facilities in the US have been seeing similar declines to the overall vehicle-miles traveled data in the past five years, it seems.

There is clearly a major choice to be made by the people in the November elections. They will make a big difference 2013 to 2016. But it is difficult to see leadership on either side that is capable of restoring the old economic growth any time soon - the problems of burgeoning debt, unfunded entitlements, and special interest power are so great.

Looking for some good news

Perhaps the good news is that:

(1) capacity increases in roads, bridges and tunnels are much less needed than we thought and will be less of a financial burden - the focus must be on removation and modernization of assets

(2) toll facilities being self-financing are better placed than free roads in an era of state and federal budgetary crises and strong public aversion to higher taxes

(3) in the wireless information age with traffic management by variable toll rates toll facilities are especially well positioned to provide value-for-money

(4) as modern sensing and data algorithms increasingly drive vehicles the 'drivers' of cars will soon become passengers with time on their hands.

There will be huge new opportunities for in-vehicle services during drive time. Toll roads as businesses geared to provide travel value for money, and engaged in high technology charging will be well positioned to lead here.

FHWA estimates of vehicle miles traveled in US:

TOLLROADSnews 2012-09-24

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