Coloradans driving a bit less, study says

By Garrison Wells Published: August 29, 2013 | 5:25 pm 0

Hit by high gas prices, the troubled economy and changing attitudes, Coloradans are cutting back on driving.

Since 2005, residents have trimmed the miles they travel in their vehicles by 11.4 percent, according to a report by Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocate.

"That means Coloradans are driving 1,172 miles less than they were in 2005," said Quinn Chasan, CoPirg associate.

Chasan released the report at a news conference at the Mountain Metro bus terminal in downtown Colorado Springs Thursday.

It's part of a national trend.

Indeed, 45 states in the United States experienced declines, according to CoPirg.

CoPirg's report was supported by a Federal Highway Administration report this week that said vehicle miles traveled nationwide during the first half of 2013 were down slightly.

The average number of miles drivers individually rack up peaked in July 2004 at just over 900 per month, according to a study by Transportation Department economists Don Pickrell and David Pace. By July of last year, that had fallen to 820 miles per month, down about 9 percent.

Colorado is among pacesetters in the slowdown with the sixth largest drop among states and ranks 14th lowest in terms of miles traveled per person, CoPirg said.

Other factors pushing down driving miles include technology and a change in demographics, Chasan said. Millennials, Americans aged 16 to 34, are the biggest generation in the country and their driving habits fell by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, CoPirg said.

It's good news for alternative modes of transportation, but bad news for auto makers and transportation projects that get funding from gasoline taxes.

Fewer miles traveled means fewer fill-ups and less taxes for state and federal coffers.

While the economy is still a factor in the downturn, it is proving less important than in previous years.

"The states with the biggest reductions in driving miles generally were not the states hit hardest by the economic downturn," CoPirg said in its report.

Wyoming residents racked up the highest miles each year at 16,000, CoPirg said.

Residents in Alabama, Louisiana and North Dakota drove more than 13,000 miles a year.

Residents who drive the least were in District of Columbia, at 5,774 miles a year, followed by Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, according to CoPirg,

Changing attitudes received some of the credit. For commuters stuck in traffic, getting into a car no longer correlates with fun.

It's also becoming more of a headache to own a car in central cities and downright difficult to park, said Pickrell and Pace.

"The idea that the car means freedom, I think, is over," said travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin.

Gone are the days of the car culture as immortalized in songs like "Hot Rod Lincoln," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Pink Cadillac."

Lifestyles are also changing. People are doing more of their shopping online. More people are taking public transit than ever before. And biking and walking to work and for recreation are on the rise.

Ridership on Mountain Metro in Colorado Springs has increased 2 percent over 2012, said Craig Blewitt, Colorado Springs Transit Services Division manager.

Much of that is related to the addition of evening service in April, he said.

Including the evening bus service and downtown Manitou shuttle, ridership has jumped 17 percent.

"It's hard to say," how much of an impact the trend has had in increasing bus ridership, Blewitt said.

There's also a driving gender gap.

In a role reversal, there are now more women than men in the U.S. with driver's licenses.

And the declines in miles driven over the past decade were more widespread among men than women, according to Pickrell and Pace.

Driving by men has declined in every age group except those 65 or older, where it increased slightly. Among women, driving declined only among young adults and teenagers.

The decline in driving has important public policy implications.

Among the potential benefits are less pollution, less dependence on foreign oil, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fewer fatalities and injuries.

But less driving also means less federal and state gas tax revenues, further reducing funds already in short supply for both highway and transit improvements.

On the other hand, less driving may also mean less traffic congestion, although the impact on congestion may vary regionally.

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for the liberal U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says driving declines mean transportation dollars could be put to other uses.

"You just don't want to spend money you don't have for highways you don't need," he said.

CoPirg's Chasan agrees, calling for a shift in where transportation dollars are spent away from highways and more toward alternatives, such as public transportation.

"Colorado's decreased driving is here to stay" he said. "State and local officials are poised to spend millions of dollars on road projects in the next decade. It's time for our public officials to press the reset button on the way they view public transportation policies."

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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