How times have changed. As of today, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline is $1.85. This may be just a temporary drop, but it’s nevertheless relatively cheap to drive again.
And yet Americans are continuing to cut back on driving. According to just released figures from the Federal Highway Administration’s Traffic Volume Trends report, Americans drove almost 13 billion fewer miles in November of 2008 than in November 2007, a decline of 5.3 percent. That is the second biggest drop in driving of any month this year, and it came even as gas prices were falling to the $2 per gallon range.
Through the first eleven months of 2008, driving has fallen an astonishing 102 billion miles, a drop of 3.5 percent over the same period in 2007. Assuming that trend holds true through the end of the year, it would represent the biggest decline in driving since World War II.
Meanwhile, transit systems across the country are reporting record ridership. Nationwide, ridership grew by 5 percent through September of 2008 compared to the same period last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. APTA doesn’t yet have nationwide data for October and November, but cities as diverse as Albany, Kansas City, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas and Portland, Oregon all saw continuing ridership gains in November. Within the tri-state region, preliminary numbers from NYC Transit show modest, but continuing November growth on buses and subways.
It seems that even as gasoline prices are starting to come down, the economic recession is suppressing driving. Vehicle miles traveled typically fall with the GDP, but what differs this time around is that transit ridership is not suffering — and, in fact, is even growing in most places. An APTA official told MTR that as Americans shifted to transit to save on gas, they “discovered” the benefits and convenience of transit. Significant unemployment could dampen the growth in transit ridership in coming months, but for now Americans are still piling onto buses and trains.
Obviously this is a trend the new Obama administration should support. Significant investments in transit operations and capital improvements, as part of the federal stimulus bill and beyond, could help catalyze a major shift in the way Americans get around.