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 Analysis
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.
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.