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23

By Douglas Shinkle and Jaime Rall

Scarcely a week seems to pass without a  new study or news story heralding a huge shift in how Americans are travelling. The number of miles each person drives annually has fallen each year since 2005. Americans took more than 10 billion trips by public transportation in 2013, the most since 1956. Since 2000, the number of regular bike commuters in the U.S. has risen by 61 percent. Zero-vehicle households are on the rise.

A line of cars on a crowded road.Interesting data-points are everywhere you turn, but is the U.S. really experiencing a sea-change in how we travel? Or is it all in the eye of the statistician? Perhaps a bit of both.

Some skeptics rightfully point out that while transit use is up in terms of trips, it’s still down in terms of market share. The nation’s population has nearly doubled since 1956, but total transit ridership is about the same, accounting for only 2 to 3 percent of overall trips. In that same timeframe, driving has increased by 1,150 percent and the overwhelming majority of Americans still get from point A to point B by driving alone. In 2012, 76 percent of U.S. commutes were solo car trips, with carpooling making up 10 percent and other travel options (including working from home) filling in the rest.

But it’s also true that Americans are taking more transit, bicycling and walking trips than a decade ago. They are also using emerging transportation-sharing options. Membership in U.S. car-sharing organizations grew from 76,420 in 2005 to 323,681 in 2009 and a whopping 995,926 in 2013. UberX, a low-cost service that allows you to summon a ride from your phone (and the focal point of high-profile regulatory debates in Seattle and Florida), is now offering rides in 46 cities and regions throughout the U.S. Bike-sharing has seen similar growth. Bike-sharing programs now have more than a million users in 46 cities from Minneapolis to San Antonio, with 10 new cities rolling out new systems in 2014.

It also appears that America’s two largest demographic cohorts, baby boomers and millennials, are both driving less—a shift that may portend a new normal for transportation in the U.S. Compared to 2001, Americans between the ages of 16 and 34 drive 23 percent less but have increased their transit miles by 40 percent and bike trips by 24 percent. Data also indicate a decline or delay in young Americans getting their driver’s licenses.

In some cases, state policy decisions are helping to drive these trends. Massachusetts has set a goal of tripling the distance of travel in the state taken on foot, transit or bike by 2030 as a policy lever to improve public health. In California, mandatory state greenhouse gas reduction targets have led to legislative-driven efforts to reduce transportation-related emissions by creating denser regions with more transportation options; the latest data reported a doubling of non-auto trips from 2000 to 2012, from 11 percent to a stunning 23 percent of all trips.

However we’re getting there, the drop in per capita driving—and a failure of total miles driven to return to pre-recession levels—is big news with big implications. Decision makers are beginning to reassess citizens’ real transportation needs and how to meet them into the future. For example, Maryland and other states are revisiting how much they take projections of future driving habits into account, which may affect future project and spending decisions. At the same time, less driving—combined with increased vehicle fuel efficiency and alternative fuel vehicles—means less gas tax revenue and a major hit to transportation budgets, encouraging states to look at alternatives.

One thing is clear: These are fascinating times in terms of how Americans are choosing to get around. While we can’t predict the future, it seems certain that through a combination of more available transportation options, demographic shifts, increasing urbanization, more telecommuting and a variety of other factors, the way Americans get from point A to point B will keep changing in meaningful ways.

Join NCSL for a free webinar on April 24 to learn how states are responding to changing travel trends with sustainable transportation funding and spending approaches.

Jaime Rall is a program manager and Douglas Shinkle is a program principal  in NCSL's Environment, Energy and Transportation ProgramEmail Jaime. Email Doug.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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