Minnesotans drive billions of vehicle miles a year, but the growth has leveled off

The daily commute
Vehicle miles traveled by Minnesotans have leveled off the last three years. Even at that, we drove drove 56.6 billion vehicle miles in 2006.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

What's going on is registered nurse Lora Krall quit her 86 mile a day round trip commute from her home in Winona to her job in Rochester.

"I was given an opportunity to work at the local hospital while I took a great pay cut, almost $10 an hour, I chose to take this job because then I didn't have to drive," she says.

What's happened is Joel Reiter lopped 120 miles of his weekly commute from near Cambridge north of the Twin Cities to his job near downtown St. Paul.

"I've convinced my management to allow me to spend one day a week working from home." he says.

What's happened is University of Minnesota grad student and instructor Jon Hoffman has given up car commuting and rides the bus from his northeast Minneapolis home to his University job due, in part, to an aggressive university program to promote and subsidize bus ridership.

"They've been really stepping up their efforts to get people to ride and people have found that it works," Hoffman says.

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All together that's nearly 500 miles a week that are no longer being driven by Lora, Joel and Jon. They all have different reasons for driving less. What they have in common is they changed their lives in ways that result in less driving.

The national picture looks like this.

The rate of growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in this country is leveling off, Brookings Institution fellow and transportation scholar Rob Puentes says.

"The average yearly increase in the l960's in VMT's was about 4.4 percent." he says.

Since then, Puentes says, it has tapered off about 1 percent a decade. So far this decade the national yearly increase is about 1.8 percent.

In Minnesota, the vehicle miles traveled numbers for the past three years are actually flat, no increase.

Why?

Is it gas prices, we're living closer to work, using transit more often or is the economy slowing down and fewer of us are working? Puentes says the answer to all is yes.

And what's the outlook, will we drive less? That answer is unknown.

The most common form of commuting in this country is a driver waking up in one suburb and driving to a job in another suburb, Rob Puentes says. Vehicle miles traveled for those folks are unlikely to decline.

"In most places there simply aren't alternatives because we haven't built our metropolitan areas in ways that provide options," he says.

Plymouth resident Ginny Black rode the bus for the first time recently from her home in Plymouth to her job near downtown St. Paul.

"It was two hours to work and two hours home," she says.

There are commuter bus options in many Twin Cities suburbs including Plymouth, and ridership is rising. But many suburban commuter transit users must contend with infrequent service and long rides.

Vehicle miles traveled are leveling off. But they have leveled off at a very high level in Minnesota. State officials say miles traveled by drivers in Minnesota in 2006 totaled 56.6 billion.

Even with this leveling off of VMT's, Joel Reiter, the one-day-a-week telecommuter from rural Cambridge 60 miles north of the Twin Cities, doesn't see much change in our habits.

"I don't see people moving in closer, and I don't see people doing carpooling and ride-sharing, not any more than they have before," he says.

The conventional view is, driving less is good. However, there's a problematic ripple effect. The plateauing of vehicle miles traveled means slower growth in federal and state gasoline tax revenue - the money used for building and repairing roads and bridges.

That puts more pressure on elected officials to come up with alternative revenue sources if we want to maintain the country's crumbling transportation infrastructure.