Rush-hour traffic in downtown Minneapolis, by Murray's steakhouse

Cutting Vehicle Miles Would Yield Health, Economic Benefits

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Minnesota Reformer and is reprinted with permission.

If Minnesotans reduced their driving by 20%, it could save the average household $1,700 a year, reduce the annual number of crash fatalities by 100, and save hundreds of additional lives through better air quality and healthier lifestyles, according to an estimate published in February by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that supports de-carbonization efforts.

“State Departments of Transportation are positioned to significantly reduce transportation pollution, not just with their own programs, but also with the federal funding they alone get to invest,” the report’s authors write. 

They note that federal funds made available through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can be used to further green transportation goals.

“If states spend this funding on expensive, status quo projects like highway expansions, pollution and traffic congestion will rise, health will suffer, and transportation inequalities will persist,” they write.

The issue is a timely one in Minnesota. The stretch of Interstate 94 running through the Twin Cities is slated for a major redesign, and policymakers are weighing whether to maintain the current design or adopt something more amenable to walking, cycling and public transit in the metro.

The Legislature is also considering a long-term framework, known as a Clean Transportation Standard, to reduce the carbon footprint of the state’s transportation sector. Preliminary plans for the standard have been criticized as not ambitious enough by a coalition of environmental groups.

Minnesota’s Department of Transportation has already set a nonbinding goal of reducing per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20% by the year 2050. Official figures show the state is currently well on track to meet this goal, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption to commuting habits.

Currently there are about 10,000 vehicle miles traveled for every man, woman and child in the state. That number had been slightly decreasing even prior to the pandemic, peaking at more than 11,000 in the mid-2000s. Reductions have been strongest in the Twin Cities, which has a robust public transit system and is building out infrastructure, like bike lanes, for human-powered transportation.

Parts of rural greater Minnesota, meanwhile, have seen their per capita VMT increase in recent years, according to an analysis by researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Transportation experts say the Great Recession of 2008 (see page 11) was one factor in the long-term decline seen in Minnesota and elsewhere. Behavioral changes among young Americans, who are less likely to drive than previous generations, are also a factor.

“The U.S. has long considered ‘car culture’ an immutable fact of life rather than a predictable consequence of its laws, urban development patterns and investment priorities,” Rocky Mountain Institute’s analysts write. By deliberately changing that culture, “states can avoid billions of dollars in energy, healthcare and vehicle costs, save lives and prevent huge amounts of pollution.”

Traffic on I-35W in Minneapolis under the Franklin Avenue bridge (photo by Tony Webster, in Wikimedia Commons).

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About Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state for the Minnesota Reformer. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.