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Drive less, Minnesotans — and prosper

In general, the wealthier you are, the more you drive. Greater financial resources allow individuals to live farther from work, shopping and entertainment while taking in stride the significant costs of operating a car.

In general, the wealthier you are, the more you drive. Greater financial resources allow individuals to live farther from work, shopping and entertainment while taking in stride the significant costs of operating a car.

Across an economy, however, more miles on the road don’t neatly translate into more dollars in the bank. Did you know that of the 12 states ahead of Minnesota in economic output in 2006, drivers in 10 of them racked up fewer miles than here?

The list of places where less windshield time has accompanied greater prosperity includes some surprises: California, the home of car culture and freeway-induced sprawl; other big western states like Alaska, Colorado and Nevada; turnpike-laced eastern states Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

New data analysis (PDF) of state vehicle miles traveled and gross domestic product on per capita bases by Matt Kane of Growth & Justice reveals these comparisons, which are particularly worthy of attention amidst an economic crisis, fluctuating fuel prices and a steep recent decline in driving nationwide.

Average of 10,940 miles
Minnesota comes out slightly below average in Kane’s figures, squeezing out $4.28 of domestic product per vehicle mile traveled versus a national average of $4.33. We drove an average of 10,940 miles in ’06, compared with 10,070 for the nation as a whole. We’re also a bit less densely populated — 65 persons per square mile against 85 per square mile for all 50 states.

Meanwhile, Alaskans, just one of them to a square mile, averaged only 7,410 annual miles of driving, second lowest in the nation, while their $64,350 in per capita output exceeded Minnesotans’ by 37 percent. OK, Alaskans and their roads are largely concentrated on the coasts, most of their travel inland is probably by air and the oil boom has greatly boosted their prosperity.

But what about Colorado and Nevada, respectively one-quarter and two-thirds less dense than Minnesota, and their fewer miles on the road and stronger economies? And take Mississippi (please!), nearly as dense as Minnesota but a place where the average person drives 3,300 miles more a year (second most in the nation) and produces nearly $18,000 less economically (dead last).

Do wealth, demographics and geography alone determine how much we drive? Or do public-policy choices about land use and the balance of investments in roads and transit make a difference?

I’m not sure of the answers to these questions, but they’re certainly worthy of consideration. Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group has recommended a 15 percent decrease in state vehicle miles traveled by 2025, to be achieved via more compact land-use planning and development of associated roadways; expanded transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure; more workplace carpooling and shifting freight from trucks to railroads. The report is now undergoing public review and comment.

Transit, rail ridership are up
These goals may not be as hard to achieve as we once thought. Surging fuel prices led to a national decline of 62.6 billion miles driven from last November through July, an 11 percent rise in transit ridership and record passenger counts on Amtrak, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters recently reported.

Minnesota’s drop in vehicle miles traveled was 5.2 percent in July, the most in the North Central region and among the nation’s top 10. We drove 260 million fewer miles than in July 2007. That probably means reduced freeway congestion, but also less fuel taxes to maintain our roads and bridges. And during the second quarter this year, Minnesota’s economic growth sagged to the second-weakest in the nation. How all these trends relate will take a smarter analyst than me to explain.

What I do know is that, due to some lifestyle changes over the past 16 months, I’m driving a lot less than I used to. I’m saving money and time, leaving me wealthier and available for more productive and enjoyable activities than sitting behind the wheel.

Maybe your situation in life and a lack of transportation alternatives won’t afford you the same luxuries right away. But it’s still worthwhile to count the costs of our blithe indifference to distance — fueled by cheap energy — that led Minnesota’s vehicle miles traveled to increase three times as fast as our population from 1986 to 2006.

If we can keep reversing that trend, there’s good chance we’ll all be richer for it.

Conrad deFiebre is a transportation fellow with Minnesota 2020, is a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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