Confirmed, again: people are driving less in MSP

The news is in, fellow readers – a bit of clarifying news. It is news that we have assumed over the past couple years, and news that most car dealerships, oil companies, and the few traditional vehicle commuters who secretly love the opening scene from Office Space are trying not to portray to the general public.

People are driving less in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Region, and they have been doing so even since the bottom of the Great Recession, with the improved economy and all.

A new performance survey done by the Regional Indicators Initiative – a joint effort by LHB, the Urban Land Institute, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, among others – shows that the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have recorded a lesser amount of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) since 2008. Not only that, but most suburbs listed in the survey also recorded a lower VMT amount. (The data only goes until 2011, but the 2012 figures should be released soon.) You can take a look at the whole survey here.

Some interesting observations:

– Minneapolis and St. Paul showed a steady decline in VMT from 2008-2011. Minneapolitans drove about 4 million less miles per year, while St. Paulites drove about 2 million less miles per year.

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Source: Regional Indicators Initiative

Source: Regional Indicators Initiative

– Out of the 16 suburbs surveyed, only 4 increased VMT. What was most surprising to me was that out of the 9 suburbs classified as “Outer Ring”, only Lake Elmo increased VMT while the other 8 decreased their use of the ignition slot. (Gazing at you up there, silly Lake Elmo kiddos.)

– Another surprising observation: the St. Paul suburb of Woodbury had a huge decline of VMT. Woodbury residents drove a whopping 55 million miles less in 2011 than in 2008. Not bad for a suburb completely and optimally designed for vehicle-centric transportation. It would be interesting to get the Metro Transit ridership counts from the Woodbury area. Also, other honorable mentions include Eagan and Eden Prairie, with respective drops of 15 and 9 million VMT over the surveyed years.

Source: Regional Indicators Initiative

Source: Regional Indicators Initiative

Source: Regional Indicators Initiative

Source: Regional Indicators Initiative

So, what does this all mean, and why are people driving less? The Washington Post released a great blog article about the topic back in April. They cite reasons which I would have otherwise listed (More people living in TOD areas, increased cost of driving, the recession), and other reasons which I did not even consider (Harder to get a license nowadays, social technology advancements allowing people to drive less).

If I have one reservation about the survey, it would be that the recession and the subsequent arduous recovery that we are experiencing now is the main cause of the decreased driving numbers. However, according to the energy portion of the survey, our consumption of general BTU has increased since 2008. This indirectly illustrates that the economy has improved with the increased energy consumption, even after attaching the green, energy-saving construction methods that have blanketed the region over the past 5 years.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see if the VMT increases over the next 5 years, assuming a continuously improving economy, or if it will continue to decline or flatten. I think a true indicator will be in 8 years when the 2020 census data comes out – if population increases at a rate that the region expects, and if VMT decreases alongside that increase, I think it will truly be time to fully reform transportation policy and priorities.

Chris Iverson

About Chris Iverson

Chris Iverson is a transportation engineer & planner for the City of Bellevue, WA and currently lives in Seattle. He holds degrees in both Civil Engineering & Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota, and worked on a myriad of transit & multimodal transportation projects in the Twin Cities. He is a former Minnesota Daily columnist, RAGBRAI participant, bad musician, marathon finisher, and an unabashed generalist.