From Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

Something fascinating is happening on our roads.  After decades and decades of steady increases, the total amount of car travel in Minnesota has not increased for six consecutive years (see MnDOT 2010 VMT Report– pdf).  Over that period, the state’s population increased by more than 300,000 people, but total driving did not increase.  Minnesotans are increasingly choosing a healthy combination of transit, biking, walking and fewer and, most likely, shorter car trips. 

No doubt the economic recession has dampened the amount of vehicle travel.  If people don’t have jobs to go to, or money to spend, they naturally travel less. But much of the decline in travel preceded the economic downtown and matches international trends

VMTpopulation2010A chart, with caption, from MnDOT's 2010 Vehicle Miles of Travel report.

In the Twin Cities metro, transit ridership is up 24% since 2003 (source Met Council presentation to Senate Transportation Committee, 2/24/11). This transit growth corresponds with both substantially higher gas prices (from under $2 per gallon in 2004 to nearly $4 per gallon today) and expanded transit options,  including additional park-n-ride lots and express bus service, Hiawatha LRT, and Northstar Commuter Rail. Metro Transit reports that three times the current number of transit riders would like to ride buses or trains.

Transportation planners at the state, regional and local level should assess these trends very carefully.  Rather than assuming that car travel will continue upward, greater attention should be given to

  • consumer demand for transportation and housing options that together allow people to save on vehicle-related costs.   
  • a preference among young people for walkable neighborhoods with convenient transit. 
  • fewer young people rushing to get their driver’s license: in 2008, only 31% of 16 year-olds nationally had a driver’s license vs 45% in 1988.  (source: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2008/dl20.cfm)

How our region grows also will shape driving trends and options for  transit, bicycling, and walking.  Cities such as Portland, OR, and Toronto, , which have far higher rates of transit ridership per capita, not only built impressive transit systems, but planned for and used carrots and sticks to create more compact development.  The U.S EPA and other sources report that smart growth strategies can reduce average car travel by 20 to 30%.

As the Metropolitan Council embarks on creating a new Regional Development Framework and MnDOT embarks on updating the statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan, a very careful assessment of future demand for vehicle travel is essential.  Rather than assuming traditional increases in total car travel, we would be wise to pay greater attention to recent changes in travel patterns, and a stated preference for transportation investments that create more transportation choices rather than more highway lanes. The National Association of Realtors 2011 Community Preference Survey is a place to start—link to web site here and to pdf here.   A recent poll indicates Minnesotans strongly support transit investments.