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Minnesotans are driving less, MnDOT says

Minnesotans are driving less
MnDOT
MnDOT found that 21 percent of metro area freeways were congested during the peak morning and afternoon travel periods in 2011.

In what might be viewed as the silver lining to the economic black cloud, Minnesotans apparently are driving less.

A study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) found that after decades of steady growth, the number of annual Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) within the state has been virtually flat since 2004 and actually declined slightly in 2009 and 2010.

When population growth is factored into the equation, VMT per capita has actually declined since 2004 in both the metro and non-metro areas, the study found.

“It appears that as gas prices increased motorists began taking fewer trips, carpooling and using more public transportation,” it said. Transit ridership in the metro area grew from 67.2 million in 2004 to 94 million in 2011, an increase of nearly 40percent.

These trends have helped to slow the growth in traffic congestion on metro area roads.

In a separate study, MnDOT found that 21 percent of metro area freeways were congested during the peak morning and afternoon travel periods in 2011. That was down slightly from 21.5 percent in 2010 and virtually unchanged from 19.7 percent in 2004.

The department defines congestion as freeway traffic flowing at speeds of 45 miles per hour or less. It says such speeds produce “shock waves” that result in sudden braking, excessive weaving, stop-and-go traffic and crashes.

Mark Filipi, the Metropolitan Council’s traffic behavior expert, looks at congestion as “a two-edged sword.”

“We like to see congestion decline because it means we’re consuming less fuel, emitting less pollution, and causing less wear-and-tear on roads,” Filipi says. “But congestion is also a sign of a strong economy. We don’t want to become another rust-belt city.”

Suburban and ex-urban growth

The MnDOT study found that vehicular travel is growing in parts of the state  -- most notably in some of the suburban and ex-urban counties.

For the period 1992-2010, the counties with the highest VMT growth were: Crow Wing, Isanti, Carver, Chisago, Sherburne, Washington, Wright, Scott and Dakota. Each of these counties had a total growth of more than 55 percent.


Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center; Minnesota DEED; MnDOT, Office of Transportation Data and AnalysisStatewide Annual Growth Trends:1992-2010

The slowest percent growth in VMT occurred in the more rural counties in the state, including Cook, Lake of the Woods and Traverse counties, with total growth less than 5 percent for the same time period.

Dave Van Hattum of Transit for Livable Communities says planners at the state, regional and local levels “should assess these trends very carefully” as they prepare future transportation plans.

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Rather than assuming that car travel will continue upward, Van Hattum says 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. 
  • A decline in the number of young people rushing to get their driver’s license. In 2008, only 31 percent of 16-year-olds nationally had a driver’s license, compared with 45 percent in 1988.

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Comments (6)

While gasoline sales lag, E85 use is on the rise in MN

Owners of flex fuel vehicles, which can use either ethanol-based E85 or regular unleaded, bought an estimated 19.8 million gallons of E85 in 2011, according to figures released by the Minnesota Department of Commerce. That would place 2011 as the 3rd best year for E85 sales, after the pre-recession records of 22.5 million gallons sold in 2008 and 21.4 million gallons sold in 2007.

Not just a response to the economy

The idea that this is entirely connected to the economy is mistaken, or more probably a deliberate misrepresentation. Automobile use is declining. MnDOT's PR operation is attempting to suggest that is a temporary effect of the economy because the decline is a threat to MnDOT's road building industry. There is nationwide change in driving habits and choices that started before the economy tanked. Using VMT growth created by 1990's development patterns to justify future investments in auto capacity in the 21st century is deliberately deceptive.

Good news/bad news

The decline in VMT is good news, but it ought to be matched or exceeded by an expansion of the kinds of neighborhoods that Van Hattum singles out in his first two bullet points. My Minneapolis neighborhood appears to have been planned by people determined to drive residents from the city, since it has zero retail, and only 1 commercial lot of the 1,500 lots that comprise the area. It's the antithesis of what Van Hattum is talking about.

The last bullet point is intriguing. What seem to be the issues that are keeping teens from "rushing" to get their driver's licenses?

Traffic and the economy

Automatically linking traffic to the economy is a mistake, I think. This last downturn resulted in a contraction of the workforce and the population's ability to pay for gas. Workers resorted to riding the bus and train to try to reduce the cost of having a job. Because the economy hasn't just bounced back, no one is quite ready to take the risk to full spending, again. And, besides, many people who hopped on the bus found they liked not only saving money, but hassle and stress. There's a certain bit of pride one gets on the bus as your driver honks the stray cars out of the shoulder and you whiz by. This economic recovery might not drag everyone back into their cars, so no one should lament the loss of the traffic jam.

Odd that they ignored bicycle commuting

Despite our harsh climate, Minneapolis was named the #1 Bike City by Bicycling Magazine. I also think that the Nice Ride Minnesota bike share program makes mass transit more practical most of the year. And this past "Winter" has been excellent for bicycle commuters. I think that I only missed three days.

We have excellent bicycle infrastructure, including many bike paths and stripped lanes. The Midtown Greenway is the crown jewel, but only one of many practical commuter routes.

It's also powered by food, not fossil fuels. And it generates no smog and trace amounts of greenhouse gases.

Will it overtake cars as the major mode for commuting? Certainly not. But everyone who commutes by bike is one less person in a car.

No disrespect to Mr Filipi,

But this is an extraordinarily silly statement:

“[C]ongestion is also a sign of a strong economy. We don’t want to become another rust-belt city.”

Congestion is not a sign of a strong economy, it's a sign of an inefficient economy. Transportation activity is pure economic (as well as environmental and existential) waste. An economy where people walk to work, teleconference, and eat locally grown apples for lunch is not weaker than one where everyone drives to work and meetings and eats apples trucked in from Washington State.