Some Perspective On How Angelenos Are Driving Less

Eyes on the Street: per capita Vehicle Miles Traveled has been declining in L.A. since 20. Image via Rick Cole Twitter
Per capita Vehicle Miles Traveled has been declining in L.A. since 20. Image via Rick Cole Twitter

Last week, Los Angeles City Deputy Mayor, and soon-to-be Santa Monica City Manager, Rick Cole tweeted out a graph showing that Angelenos are driving less than we used to. In 2002, the average city resident drove 11.9 miles each day. By 2013, that daily Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) has declined to about 10.8 miles each day. I asked Cole for the source of the graph, and his only response, tweeted, was that it’s from an “L.A. City Planning Report.” Which report is not clear.

The disembodied graph got picked up by L.A. Magazine, Curbed, and LAist. Streetsblog retweeted and put it atop our headlines.

What has caused this shift in 2002? L.A. Magazine suggests that L.A. “has invested heavily in bike and transit infrastructure. Protected bike lanes have opened across the city, along with parking for cycles and sharrows painted on streets.” Curbed points to the changes having been “sped up” by the Measure R transportation sales tax.

Hmmmm… This shift started in 2002. Measure R passed in 2008, and its rail, bus, and freeway projects take a few years to build. LADOT implemented its first sharrows in 2010, its first bike parking corral in 2011, and its first and only serious protected bike lane in 2015. LADOT did greatly step up implementation of bike lanes especially from 2010-2012, but I am still waiting for that “invested heavily” stuff. So, all those causes that L.A. Magazine and Curbed are pointing out took place in the later years on the right end of this graph, or or even to the right just off-graph. L.A.’s drop-off in per-person driving started in 2002, well before the transit and bike infrastructure we see today.

I think it’s more likely that the last 5 years of somewhat-improved bike and transit facilities are a response to this trend, not a cause of it. I think that city agencies, elected officials, and experts are beginning to catch up with trends that are already happening on our streets.

What’s the cause? Anyone who says they know is probably wrong, but I will go ahead and speculate later, at the end of the article. First, a look at how L.A. compares to other places where the declining VMT trend has been observed.

Like Los Angeles, the national trend shows a declining per-capita driving for the past ten years.

Per-capita VMT in the U.S. via Streetsblog USA
Per-capita annual VMT in the U.S. via Streetsblog USA

After increasing fairly steeply for decades, the U.S. per-capita driving begins to climb less steeply in the 1990s, then begins to decline around 2002. Different studies put the peak and decline in slightly different places, but the national trend has definitely been downward for about a decade.

In the USA, per-capita drivng peaked about 2005 and has declined since. Image via Streetsblog USA
In the USA, per-capita drivng peaked about 2005 and has declined since. Image via Streetsblog USA

The national trend is mirrored by state trends. Some states saw VMT declining in the mid-1990s. California per capita driving has declined since 2002-2003.

Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Changes in how the state manages transportation changes promise to drive it even lower. Photo: ##http://www.peaktraffic.org/graphics/vmt-california.jpg##Peak Traffic##
Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Photo: ##http://www.peaktraffic.org/graphics/vmt-california.jpg##Peak Traffic##

In California, overall driving, not just per-person driving, has been in decline since 2007.

Nobody predicted this trend. Nobody.

Sadly, though we’re at least a decade into declining per-person driving, very few transportation agencies and traffic engineers have incorporated these trends in their predictions of future car traffic. Engineers are still predicting that upticks, 1990s-style or 1970s-style, are right around the corner.

Traffic projections from Washington State, compared to actual trend. Image from Sightline Institute via Streetsblog.net
Traffic projections from Washington State, compared to actual trend. Image from Sightline Institute via Streetsblog.net

Transit expert Jarrett Walker says that these aren’t really predictions, but denial.

But it’s these kinds of nutty, unprofessional, faulty projections that result in unsafe designs for places like the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. Car traffic has declined on that bridge for the last 10 years, but sadly L.A. City’s engineers are still predicting an uptick in car traffic through 2040.

Only in late 2014 did some transportation agencies begun to the be honest and factual in their forecasts; see these graphs from Washington State.

Will this honesty-in-predicting reach California or Los Angeles someday, more than a dozen years into the current trend?

We’ll see. Apparently there’s a yet-to-be-released Planning Department report on the subject making the rounds with mayoral staff. That’s a start. Dear City Planning Department, please cc: the Bureau of Engineering and LADOT.

So, my guess on some factors that may have contributed to L.A.’s VMT has declined recently: (see also Sightline’s speculation here)

  • demographic shifts: baby boomers are retiring and driving less at the same time as millennials are living in cities and driving less
  • modal shifts: many people who used to drive to work now walk, bike, take transit, carpool or work at home
  • shorter trips: people aren’t moving as far out into sprawling suburbs, so even ones who aren’t shifting modes are at least driving shorter trips
  • fuel prices: the general upward trend in the price of gasoline discourages driving
  • actual limits of car-centric design: not sure how this would ever be proven, but I think that there are probably physical limits of how many cars that can be crammed into a given place, and that continued growth in VMT in these locations results in gridlock that can’t be built-out-of at a reasonable cost

My hunch is that these and other factors have played out gradually over time to reduce the amount of driving we do. Readers, what do you think? Why are Angelenos driving fewer miles? What should we do about it?

 

 

  • Asher Of LA

    I was going to say an increasing weariness of traffic – that congestion has reached some tipping point whereby people are just more resistant to driving far.

    But considering how strong the trend is nationwide, there must be something else going on.

    Maybe the profusion of digital entertainment, from videogames to Netflix to internet browsing, is keeping people in place? These thrills require little to no driving. Watching Netflix is a common Friday night activity now, and the service consumes something like a third of internet traffic.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    I’ll repeat what I wrote in today’s headlines below.

    Looking at the Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) annual results gives a clearer picture of why the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per person has dropped in the city of Los Angeles.

    The ACS annual results started in 2005 and the latest is 2013. However, there is a Census Bureau household survey result that can be obtained for the year 2000 on their ACS website if American Community Survey is removed when using the search box.

    The share of workers residing in the city of Los Angeles and using a car, truck or van as their main form of transportation to work went from 80.5% in the year 2000 to 77% in 2013 on the ACS results. Where did this category of driving to work loss of 3.5% of all workers go to?

    The category of taxi, motorcycle and other means of transportation gained 0.8% of all workers.

    Transit, walking and bicycling combined gained 1.3% of all workers.

    Working at home gained 1.3% of all workers.

    What’s missing is 0.1% of that 3.5% driving to work loss due to the Census Bureau percentages only adding up to 99.9% for the ACS 2013 results on the Commuting Characteristics By Sex chart (S0801) that I used.

    Also noteworthy is that the combination of walking, transit and bicycling ACS results ranged from 15.5% to 15.8% from 2007 to 2013 (with the exception of 2011 when it had a combination of 16.2%). It was 15.6% in 2007 and 15.6% in 2013. In other words walking, transit and bicycling combined have not gained a higher percentage of all workers from 2007 through 2013. Bicycling went from 0.6% in 2007 to 1.2% in 2013. Commuting by transit dropped from 11.3% of all workers in 2007 to 10.8% in 2013.

    Another activity that is decreasing for driving is shopping. There has been a large increase in shopping on the internet since the year 2000 that have replaced trips to brick and mortar stores .

    Increasing use of the internet has probably had the biggest impact in reducing the VMT in the city of Los Angeles since the year 2000. Who could have predicted in 2000 that the internet would replace a substantial portion of driving trips?

  • Wanderer

    This is reminiscent of the “great crime decline” debate. After decades of going up, crime rates started going down in the mid-90’s and have never gone up for any long period (bounces in a given year notwithstanding). Nobody really knows why that is, though people offer all sorts of theories, including legalized abortion leading to fewer abused/abusive children.

    VMT thoughts, in no particular order

    Rail service–Rail service has increased in many metropolitan areas, though on the whole bus service hasn’t (in LA it has).

    Population increases in central areas–Though low density suburbs haven’t exactly dried up and blown away, there have been population increases in central areas where one can travel more easily by means other than driving.

    Internet–The internet has presumably replaced some trips, though it’s impossible to know how many.

    Working at home–The percentage of people working at home has gone up a little. People who work at home still take work-related trips (to the Fed Ex store and such) but probably shorter trips than regular commuters.

    Later start driving–It’s clear that a lot of Millenials don’t start driving as young as young people used to. The very young themselves don’t make up a big percentage of drivers, but this pattern could lead to less driving.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    driving no longer has the visceral sex appeal of liberation that it had in a prior generation. Nothing about mass motoring is appealing. Especially in SoCal.

    We can expect to see a slightly steeper downslope of VMT at as us Boomers phase out and Milennials phase in. Milennials despise mass motoring and think of car time as torture.

    Boomers are the last generation to still cling to the myth of mass motoring as liberating.

    My Mother and Father both born in the 1930s worshiped car driving. They’d drive 15 miles one way to grocery shop. Their household drove 15-25,000 miles a year.

    My Brother and I born in the early 1960s own and use cars as a way to escape the city. Our households drive 10,000 – 15,000 miles a year.

    Our Adult children born in the 1980s, own one car per household and wonder why they even own the one car. Their households drive less than 10,000 miles a year.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I think my wife and I fall into what I call “Generation X.1” (just a few years older than your kids), and while we still have one car, it’s set to come off lease in early August and it’s looking unlikely that we’ll get another car. This is not to say we won’t drive; Zipcar and car rental agencies are conveniently located nearby and work well for the occasional grocery run or weekend camping trip. UberBLACK is nice when we want to splurge on a car service and some of the cab-hailing apps frequently send out promo credits. It helps that we live and work in transit-friendly locations. I think that’s key.

  • calwatch

    The source of the chart is a “performance metric report” (http://planning.lacity.org/Documents/policy/PerformanceMetricReport.pdf) and is derived from the California Public Road Data publication – http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/tsip/hpms/datalibrary.php

  • calwatch

    Remember VMT in the chart is averaged per capita, including seniors and children. Joel Kotkin, among others, has noted the decrease in the workforce population in the City of Los Angeles, alleging that many of these have been replaced with the unemployed, welfare takers and immigrant children. Seniors will make more personal and shopping trips but those trips may be shorter than work trips. Young children only make trips with their parents.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    what would you reckon your household VMT per year has been over last few years ? what do you think it will be next year ?

  • Adam

    The most obvious reason is the launch and widespread adoption of internet mapping tools and GPS devices in cars. The small reduction in los angeles of 1.2 miles per day is probably mostly attributable to technology resulting in small adjustments that reduce miles driven, like a GPS informing someone they can take La Cienega to connect the 10 to the 405 rather than driving an extra couple miles to connect the freeways directly. Additionally, there is less wasted time (because of mapping tech), driving around “lost.”

  • Dennis_Hindman

    In the American Community Survey results the Census Bureau estimated the number of workers for the year 2000 who were residents of the city of Los Angeles at 1,494,895 people. For 2013 the estimated number of workers who were residents of the city of Los Angeles was 1,800,661. How would 305,766 more workers be considered a decrease in the workforce? The estimated number of workers in 2008 was 1,799,639. That makes the 2013 estimated number of workers 1,022 more than in 2008.

  • Joe Linton

    It’s certainly possible – do you know when GPS devices were introduced and gained widespread adoption?

  • SFnative74

    The way that first graph is scaled, it looks like driving per capita dropped over 50%! Still, a 10% drop over that big a population is nothing to sneeze at.

  • The Overhead Wire

    My question would be…when did LA stop growing out? The region is hemmed in on many sides even though there is still growth out East, I would argue all that there is no where to go further out, and thus it’s harder to drive VMT up without that growth. Just a theory.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Hmmmm. Well, truth be told, even though we still “have” a car, it’s functioning as a rental with FlightCar for the last couple months to allow us to get comfortable with car-free living. But between the time when my wife got a job that no longer required a driving commute and when we sent our car out for rent, not enough time really elapsed for me to get a gauge on how many miles we were driving, but I would guess a fairly low number; probably less than 5k annually.

  • Wanderer

    I wouldn’t trust anything Kotkin says about Los Angeles is true without carefully verifying it, he just hates cities and urban life. He’s often just wrong.

    But even if it were true in the city of Los Angeles, it doesn’t explain the national decline, in 49 of 50 states. VMT per capita has even declined in North Dakota, which has seen an influx of young oil workers.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    The first modern smartphone was the iPhone in 2007. GPS became available for phones in 2005. It looks like Garmin started selling GPS devices in the late 1990’s, but they only sold 3 million of them before 2000. (https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Garmin#History) I would guess that it’s around 2002-2004 that they became not uncommon, and around 2009 that they became truly ubiquitous.

  • BJToepper

    My car is model year 2000, bought in late 1999, with a built-in GPS that I find useful despite its clunky interface. I don’t think this car was the first, but it might have been ahead of the curve.

  • neroden

    Actually, the question regarding the great crime decline HAS BEEN ANSWERED.

    I’ve never seen a more overwhelming set of evidence in the social sciences than this:
    http://www.motherjones.com/topics/lead-and-crime

    Read it ALL. And follow the links and read them. You’ll be convinced.

    Lead poisoning among young children caused the spike in crime rates when those children became adults. Removal of lead poisoning caused the crime rates to drop again.

    This happened in every country, and it happened on *different schedules* corresponding to introduction and removal of various sources of environmental lead poisoning (but mostly gasoline lead).

    We also know the neurological mechanisms: early childhood lead poisoning causes difficulty reasoning and poor impulse control. A combination which leads to violent outbursts. Plus, we know that severe adult lead poisoning makes people into ax-wielding maniacs (yep, really).

  • neroden

    Actually, some people were predicting in 2000 that the Internet would replace a substantial portion of driving trips. Some were waaaay too optimistic about this, including WebVan (remember them?)

  • neroden

    FWIW, the removal of gasoline lead is probably also causing the “return to the inner cities” (the inner cities were crime-ridden because of high gasoline lead emissions). Which is probably causing lower VMT.

    Leaded gasoline is probably the worst thing the human race has ever done to itself. God knows what other problems it’s caused — lead poisoning also causes paranoia….

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